The Montana Tech football team flew east Friday knowing it is just three wins away from a national championship.
The 10-1 Orediggers will play Saint Francis at 10 a.m. (Mountain Time) Saturday in the quarterfinals of the NAIA national playoffs in Fort Wayne, Indiana. (Radio: KBOW 550 AM, 101.5 FM or online)
While flying crossing two times zones, the Oredigger know that a berth in next week’s semifinals won’t be the gimme like it was last week when they pounded overmatched Dickinson State 44-10 at Alumni Coliseum.
The No. 5 Orediggers have never faced the No. 4 Cougars, but Chuck Morrell has. So the fifth-year Oredigger coach knows that Saturday will be a major test as his team takes on Kevin Donley’s Cougars.
As the defensive coordinator at Sioux Falls, Morrell faced Saint Francis twice deep in the playoffs, winning both times. Sioux Falls knocked off the Cougars in the 2006 national championship game and a gain in the 2008 semifinals.
“Kevin Donley is one of the all-time winning coaches in NAIA football,” Morrell said of the Saint Francis 18-year head coach. “He’s really a legend in terms of the football program he’s built and the consistency that they’ve had being up toward the top of the country on a year in, year out basis.”
Nick Ferrer, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound sophomore quarterback, leads the Cougars, who beat Reinhardt (Georgia) 37-26 last Saturday in a Fort Wayne blizzard.
Ferrer has completed 62 percent of his passes for 2,908 yards, 35 touchdowns and just three interceptions for the 10-0 Cougars, the only undefeated team in the playoffs.
Morrell said Ferrer reminds him of the great Austin Dodge, the quarterback who terrorized the Frontier Conference before leading Southern Oregon to the 2014 national title.
“He’s incredibly talented,” Morrell said of Ferrer. “He has a big arm and is very accurate.”
Ferrer also has some big-time weapons at his disposal. Seth Coate, a 6-4 junior receiver, has racked up 46 receptions for 1,061 yards and 15 touchdowns. He averages 23.1 yards per catch.
Cameron Smith, a 6-1 senior, has 37 catches for 757 yards and eight touchdowns. In all, 10 different Cougars have caught at least one touchdown pass.
“We’ve got to mix up the looks on them,” Morrell said of stopping the Cougar attempt. “Pressuring (the quarterback) is important, but you’ve got to be careful in terms of the pressure at times, too. We’ve got some difficult matchups on the outside, so it’s important for us to be balanced. We’ve got to make sure we play their run game.”
Saint Francis’ running game is more than just a compliment to the passing attack. Justin Green, a 5-11, 186-pound redshirt freshman ran for 252 yards in the snow last week. He has 797 yards on the season.
“They’re extremely talented, same as always,” Morrell said of the Cougars. “They’ve got some incredible offensive weapons and a solid defense. They’re averaging 50 points per game for good reason. They can get up and down the field.”
The Cougar defense ranks second in the Mid-States Mideast, giving up 20.9 points per game. The Cougars also specialize in taking the ball away.
“I believe they’re leading the country with pick sixes,” Morrell said. “They’re obviously ball hawking and taking the ball away.”
Saint Francis, however, surrendered 224 yards on the ground last week, and that has to be music to the ears of the Orediggers.
Led by Frontier Conference Offensive Player of the Year Nolan Saraceni, the Orediggers boast the No. 4 rushing attack in the NAIA.
Behind a formidable offensive line made up of starters Tyler Denny, Ryan Stemple, Jalen Whitley, Jack Hape and Travis Oakason, Saraceni has racked up 1,620 yards and 18 touchdowns on the season. He is 177 yards shy of Don Heater’s single-season rushing record of 1,797 yards in 1971.
The Orediggers also have some serious running threats in senior Clay Cavender and junior Zach Bunney. Both take snaps in the wildcat offense that the Orediggers started after their top two quarterbacks went down with injuries early in the season.
Sophomore quarterback Quinn McQueary, a transfer from Montana State, appears close to be making a return. Morrell, however, isn’t tipping his hand on the injured McQueary, who had been dressing and warming up with the team before taking on the role of signaling in the plays form the sideline.
Andrew Loudenback, who came to town as a quarterback but moved to tight end, took over at quarterback, though he gives way to the wildcat much of the time.
While he isn’t going to show up on the nation’s passing leader charts, Loudenback has come up big when needed. He’s thrown nine touchdowns and just two interceptions in 92 attempts.
Alec Bray, Sean Sullivan, Chris Lachance and Kolby Kanasla, who seems to only catch touchdowns, have also made big plays for the Orediggers.
If McQueary does play Saturday, bet on it being in a limited role because Morrell and the Oredigger coaching staff is very happy with the attack led by Loudenback et al.
“We’re in such a rhythm in what we’re doing,” Morrell said. “We’ve been doing it for the last six weeks, playing good team football. Andrew has made some tremendous throws when we needed to. We haven’t thrown the ball a lot, but when we have it has been highly effective.”
The Oredigger offense has also controlled the clock, leaving Tech’s deep and talented defense fresh.
That defense was the No. 1 defense in the Frontier Conference. Somehow, though, the Oredigger somehow only placed two players — linebacker David Meis and defensive lineman Tyler Sanders — named first-team All-Frontier.
Meis’ 77 tackles and seven sacks leads the Orediggers, while Tyler Gavlak, who was snubbed on the All-Frontier voting, registered 69 tackles and seven tacks.
Gunnar Kayser, Drew Schleeman, Jacob Crawford and Rial Gunlikson have all registered more than 40 tackles, while DeAngelo Bell, who somehow was only second-team all-conference, leads the stingy Oredigger pass defense.
Will Davey has a team-best four interceptions.
“The consistent production we’ve gotten out of those guys has been solid,” Morrell said of the Oredigger defense. “The biggest thing is they’re not making a lot of mistakes right now. That’s critical to being successful.”
Weather should not be a factor Saturday. The forecast for Fort Wayne calls for cloudy conditions, a 20 percent chance of rain and a high of 42.
Other quarterfinal games will see Tabor of Kansas head to Morningside in Iowa, Southern Oregon go to Baker in Kansas and Marian in Indiana traveling to Grand View Iowa.
If the Orediggers and Southern Oregon both win, there is an outside chance Tech could host a semifinal game next week.