By Bill Foley
It’s still very early in the football season, but Saturday is certainly a key date on the calendar for the Montana Tech Orediggers.
The No. 10 Orediggers hit the road looking to take early control of the Frontier Conference against No. 15 Eastern Oregon in La Grande.
Tech, Eastern and Rocky Mountain are tied atop the Frontier Standings at 2-1 after a wild start to the Frontier season. The Orediggers took care of Rocky last week in Butte, knocking the Battlin’ Bears from the Top 25 with a 48-12 rout.
“This is a critical game,” Oredigger coach Chuck Morrell said. “Whoever wins this game is going to be in the driver’s seat going into break.”
The Orediggers, like most of the Frontier Conference, have next week off.
To take the seat behind the wheel heading into the final six games of the season, the Orediggers will have to beat an old nemesis. Since Morrell took over the Orediggers in 2011, coach Tim Camp and the Mountaineers own an 8-2 record against Tech.
In the team’s meeting in Butte late last season, Montana Tech snapped a five-game losing streak to the Mounties, who always seem to save their best for the Orediggers.
“Coach Camp gets fired up to play Tech, and the atmosphere is always intense when we’re playing against him,” Morrell said. “He gets his guys ready to play. They’re obviously just a very well coached team.”
The Mountaineers, who opened the season with a home win against Southern Oregon and a road victory at Montana Western, fell 20-7 at home last week to the College of Idaho.
That upset loss came during heavy rain in La Grande, and Morrell said he Orediggers have basically tossed the film of that game out of the window.
“They moved the ball like crazy,” Morrell said of the Mountaineers in the upset loss. “They just weren’t able to finish and get into the end zone.”
The Orediggers, who left Butte Thursday night, have loads of respect for the Mountaineers and senior quarterback Zach Bartlow.
“He may be the top quarterback in the conference,” Morrell said. “He’s got all the tools. We compare him a lot to Quinn (McQueary) in terms of mobility and down-field accuracy. He’s got both of those things.”
Bartlow has passed for 825 yards and seven touchdowns through three games. He has been picked off four times. The QB has also ran for 166 yards and two scores. He broke off a 31-yard run in the rain last week.
“You defend the initial pass concept. Then after that all bets are off,” Morrell said. “We’ve clocked it at times, and he’s running around back there for eight seconds. He can beat you in multiple ways.”
Alfred Gross, a 5-foot-9 running back, is coming off a 150-yard game. He’s posted 273 yards on the season.
“The Gross kid at tailback is explosive,” Morrell said. “He’s gone for some really big runs. If he gets some space he can take it the whole way.”
The receiving corps is led by Josh Richards, Calvin Connors and Skylar Williams. Through three games, the trio has combined for 35 receptions and five touchdowns.
“This is a veteran crew for them,” Morrell said of the Mountaineers. “All their offensive guys have been starting for multiple years, and right now they’re the top offense in the conference and one of the top offenses in the nation.”
Aside from the fourth-quarter meltdown in the opener at Carroll College, the Oredigger defense has been up to the test.
You’ve heard of the “No-name Defense.” Well, the Orediggers are the “Too-Many-Names Defense.” The Orediggers have so many players contributing on defense that it is nearly impossible to mention them all.
“We’re getting back to the identity of our defense where there’s not just one guy who has to make a bunch of plays for us,” Morrell said. “We’re playing a bunch of guys and everybody has bought in and playing well within the scheme. We don’t have to rely on one guy defensively. Anybody who steps onto the field can have a big impact on the game.”
Still, Morrell pointed to the play of junior linebacker Levi Dawes.
“Levi Dawes had a really good game,” Morrell said, referring to the Rocky win. “He is just continuing to be “Mr. Consistent’ for us.”
Of course, the play of the game came from cornerback Andre Brown, who had a 104-yard interception return called back by a penalty.
While the touchdown didn’t count, the fourth-down interception did. That play capped a key defensive stand that followed the Bears getting the ball first and goal from the 1-yard line.
“We’ve been playing pretty consistent on our short yardage,” Morrell said. “Our red zone defense has been pretty solid, and we need to continue that. That’s certainly the landmark of a good defense when you do that.”
Sophomore linebacker Nic Amestoy is enjoying a breakout season for the Orediggers. He leads the team in tackles with 25 tackles and six tackles for a loss. Defensive back Gunnar Kayser, who has also busted out in 2016, is tied with Brown with 22 tackles.
Cornerback Anthony Nelson and linebacker Zach Hulse each have 16 takedowns. Dawes, who has four tackles for a loss, leads the team with three sacks.
On the other side of the ball — and perhaps some very good news for the Oredigger defense — Morrell said senior running back Nolan Saraceni’s health is better after he was “banged up” in the season opener. That news comes after Saraceni ran for 120 yards and two touchdowns on just seven carries last week.
“We’ve got Nolan up to full speed, and that is a big piece of our offense,” Morrell said. “We’re excited because his health is back there to the point where we really expect him to have a major impact on the game.”
Senior Zach Bunney also figures to be a factor in the running game. He broke free for a 15-yard touchdown run last week.
McQueary has been special behind center for the Orediggers. The junior who transferred from Montana State before missing most of last season with an injury, has seven touchdowns and two interceptions on the season. One pick came last week on a jump ball in the end zone when the Orediggers went for it on fourth and long at the 25.
“Quinn has done a great job,” Morrell said. “He continues to be able to extend plays. He’s making good decisions. He’s doing a pretty good job of taking care of the football.
“The initial play may break day, then he can make an impact by keeping his eyes down field and making an explosive play.”
McQueary’s favorite target continues to be senior Mitchell Keaton, who has hauled in 18 passes for 256 yards and two touchdowns. Bunney has caught 11 passes, while Sean Sullivan has nine catches and Dion Williams has seven grabs and two TDs.
Saturday will mark the only time the Orediggers and Mountaineers meet this season. It will be the first since Eastern Oregon joined the league that the teams will play just once.
That puts even more importance on the game that is already huge.
“It’s hard to categorize the Frontier Conference because everybody is really good, but Eastern Oregon is definitely in the top tier of teams in the league this year,” Morrell said. “They will be in contention at the end of the season for the conference championship, there’s no doubt about that.”