Saturday’s NAIA playoff game has been a long time coming for Montana Tech.
When the No. 5 Orediggers take on No. 18 Dickinson State at noon at Alumni Coliseum, it will mark the first home playoff game at Montana Tech since 1997.
The Orediggers, who are appearing in the playoffs for the first time since 2012, are looking for their first postseason victory since they went on the road to beat Azusa Pacific in the first round of the 2005 playoffs.
The team is counting this home game, played on the synthetic turf of the Bob Green Field, as being a springboard toward bigger and better things.
“The home playoff game is the path to making a deep run in the playoffs,” said Tech coach Chuck Morrell, who will be coaching in his 33rd NAIA playoff game.”
Morrell knows a thing or two about such playoff runs. He was an assistant at Sioux Falls from 1998-2009. During that time, the Cougars played in five NAIA national championship games, winning three.
The coach said playing at home is about more than playing in front of the large partisan crowd that is expected to support the Frontier Conference champions at Alumni.
“It just gives us a little more preparation time,” Morrell said, adding that the team doesn’t have to worry about catching a flight, long bus rides or finding hotel reservations. “It gives us a little more room to breathe throughout the week.”
The Blue Hawks, who are busing 543 miles to the Mining City, are the North Star Conference champions after compiling an 8-2 overall record.
Dickinson is also no stranger to Montana Tech. The Blue Hawks beat the Orediggers 30-13 in the first round of the 2004 playoffs in Dickinson, North Dakota.
The Blue Hawks, who were a long-time power in defunct Dakota Athletic Conference, played in the Frontier Conference during the 2012 and 2013 seasons. The Orediggers beat the Blue Hawks 42-6 and 35-14 in their two meetings as conference foes.
Dickinson went 1-19 in two years in the Frontier Conference. Morrell, though, said that doesn’t mean the Blue Hawks will be pushovers on Saturday.
“They’re incredibly different,” Morrell said.
Dickinson runs more open offense under second-year head coach Pete Stanton than it did under long-time coach Hank Biesiot.
They also possess something the Orediggers haven’t seen all year long. His name is Tray Boone, and he’s a 5-foot-9, 150-pound junior running back from Los Angeles.
“They have the fastest offensive player that I have seen on film,” Morrell said of Boone, who has 1,220 yards and 14 touchdowns on the season. “Nobody runs him down. He has legit 4.3 speed.”
Boone ran for 340 yards and four touchdowns in a 43-21 win over Presentation College.
Last time out, the Blue Hawks avenged a loss by beating Dakota State 49-40 in the North Star Bowl in the Fargo Dome. Boon ran for 186 yards and two touchdowns. He flipped into the end zone and stuck the landing on one score, earning him the No. 1 play that night on ESPN’s SportsCenter.
The Blue Hawks also boast 6-5, 230-pound junior quarterback Kaler Ray.
Ray only appeared in three games this season, but he played in the last two Dickinson games and passed for six touchdowns.
“He’s 6-5 and he can run,” Morrell said. “He’s not a pocket guy, he’s a runner.”
On the other side of the ball, the Blue Hawks are big on turning the ball over. The Blue Hawks have picked off 31 passes and recovered 14 fumbles. As a team, Dickinson is plus 12 in the turnover margin.
Even with the loss of their top two quarterbacks to injury for most of the season, the Orediggers have taken care of the football.
Andrew Loudenback has thrown for eight touchdowns and just one interception while filling in for Quinn McQueary and Dawson Reardon, who are likely out for Saturday’s game.
While the Orediggers haven’t seen anybody like Boone, likewise, the Blue Hawks likely haven’t seen anything like the great Nolan Saraceni.
Saraceni leads the nation with 161.9 yards per game. His big game, a 275-yard performance, also came against a much tougher opponent than Boone’s. The Billings Senior product put up the second-best rushing game in team history at Nelson Stadium in Helena. He sat out most of the fourth quarter, too.
Clay Cavender, Zach Bunney, Alec Bray, Sean Sullivan, Chris LaChance and Kolby Kansala have been playmakers for the Oredigger offense, too.
Kansala has just five catches on the season. But he has 213 yards and three touchdowns. Two of those TDs came in the second half of last week’s 24-17 win over then-No. 10 Montana Western.
Defensively, the Orediggers have been unreal.
Tech has racked up 38 sacks on the season, with David Meis and Tyler Gavlak leading the way with seven apiece. Luke Benz has six and a half sacks, while Drew Schleeman has three and a half.
Jacob Crawford, Tyler Sanders, Levi Dawes, Nic Amestoy and Joey Orrino have also been in on multiple sacks this season.
“The defensive line is an area we’ve got some depth,” Morrell said, adding that defensive coordinator B.J. Campbell has been dialing up some tough defensive plays for the Orediggers.
“He has been so creative with guys up front,” Morrell said. “We’re playing seven or eight different packages on defense right now.”
With starting senior cornerbacks DeAngelo Bell and Zavier Marsden leading the way, the Orediggers are holding their opponents to a league-low 199.0 yards passing per game.
“We’ve been able to play man-to-man coverage for the first time since I’ve been here,” Morrell said. “I’ve coached some really good secondary guys. DeAngelo Bell at the cornerback position, I don’t think I’ve ever had a guy play like that for a full season.”
Sophomore Will Davey, a ball-hawking safety, leads the team with four interceptions.
Morrell said he realized his 2015 team would have what it takes to compete near the end of the disappointing 1-9 season in 2014.
The Orediggers went toe-to-toe with Carroll College late before taking a halftime lead over eventual NAIA national champion Southern Oregon in the season finale.
“We learned some tough lessons a year ago,” Morrell said. “Those couple of games showed us we can play with the best teams in the country.”
Morrell also praised the closeness of a team that he says is a family. That is a major factor, he says, in the Orediggers playing great “team football” throughout the season.
“This is a crew that 20 years from now, they’re still going to be best friends,” Morrell said.
The Orediggers could possibly host two playoff games this season. For that to happen, the Orediggers need to win and hope one of the top four teams lose.
Montana Tech will have 1997 Oredigger captains Mark Jensen and Paul Hladky on hand for the pregame coin toss.