Orediggers, Mountaineers meet under lights

It doesn’t get any bigger than this as the Orediggers battle No. 16 Eastern Oregon in the season-opening football game Saturday.

Of course, the Orediggers can pretty much say that every week as they begin a 10-game season of 10 Frontier Conference games.

The first one kicks off at 6 p.m. at Alumni Coliseum.

“First of all, there’s not one warm-up game in the frontier conference,” Tech second-year coach Chuck Morrell said. “You can’t pick out one opponent and say this is going to be a warm-up game. It’s all on the line right from the get.”

A playoff spot certainly can’t be won on Sept. 1, but it could very well be lost in a league that has only sent Carroll College to the playoffs in recent years.

The Orediggers take on the Saints next week at home before heading to read games at Montana Western and Rocky Mountain College.

“What’s going to happen on your season is based on what’s going to happen in your first couple of games,” Morrell said. “We’ve got a big opening schedule, but everybody does. I mean it’s the Frontier Conference. There’s not game that’s lesser than any other one.”

The Orediggers are facing several unknowns when they take on the Mountaineers, who have to replace four-year starting quarterback Chris Ware and All-American running back Kevin Sampson.

The Mountaineers still received their highest preseason ranking in school history.

“I really expect this to be a top-quality opponent,” Morrell said. ” If they would have gotten in the playoffs they could have done some serious damage.”

Eastern Oregon’s game notes (click here) say junior college transfer Tyler Pine will start at quarterback. Montana Tech suspected as much, but Mountaineers coach Tim Camp didn’t make that announcement ahead of time.

Sean Hurlbut is listed as Eastern Oregon’s starting running back. Morrell, though thinks his team is going to see a steady dose of Chris McGinnis-Park, also a JC transfer.

“He’s got some big-time speed. In a lot of senses, he’s very similar to Sampson,” Morrell said of McGinnis-Parker. “What I think they did is they lost those two guys and they went out and found the closest two guys to that. He is a very dynamic running back. Any time he touches the ball he can house it. He’s got that type of speed.”

Morrell hasn’t announced his starting quarterback — at least not public. The Orediggers will play juniors Nick Baker and Brian Schwarzkoph behind center, and Morrell feels comfortable with both of them.

Schwarzkoph won the job in camp last year. After he injured his hand at MSU-Northern though, Baker filled in and led the Orediggers to two wins in their final three games. Tech finished the season at 3-8 overall.

Tech returns in 2012 with more depth and more weapons. Seniors Trent Thomas and Craig Halko are listed as starting receivers for the Orediggers, who have several newcomers at that position as well.

Junior tight end Leif Knatterud enters his second year as starting tight end. Morrell said he’s happy with freshmen Jake Crawford and Slaten Long.

“Those are some young guys at tight end, but they haven’t shied away from anything,” Morrell said. “Jay Crawford and Slayton long have been really impressive. For being young guys, they’re very physical football players.”

The Orediggers are set at running back, where they return a 1,400-yard back in sophomore Pat Hansen. Morrell is also excited about sophomore Taylor Rowe, who saw time as a true freshman last year.

“Obviously Pat is going to be the focus, but Taylor Rowe has a had a really good fall camp for us,” Morrell said. “He’s the type of guy who can really impact the game.”

The Oredigger depth at offensive line will be tested early with some minor injuries and an illness to Mack Ferko, but Morrell said he likes what he has in starters Danny Valenzuela, Ben Cook, Keith Mullan, Nick Reily and Alex Havlovic.

Mullan is a senior who is back after not playing last season.

Defensively, the Orediggers have some new faces in Morrell’s 3-4 scheme.

Mike Walldman, Logan Sims and Austin Brinkworth will start up front, while Jake Workman, Tyler Denny and Devon Jones will rotate into a position Morrell sees as deep and talented.

The same could be said of a linebacker corps that includes Joe Semansky and Mike Touzinssky, Shane Lowman and David Meis.

Semansky and Touzinsky are back after battling injuries last year. Meis is a highly-touted recruit from Helena who Morrell had a hard time redshirting last year.

Nate Kobold anchors a secondary that will also start Ketwaun Frank, Devonte Craig and Nate Thomson.

The Orediggers hoping their kicking game will be much improved in 2012. Field position killed the Orediggers last season, and punter Travis Farewell, who showed off a booming leg with a 91-yard punt in Havre last year, has worked hard in the offseason on his consistency. That work has showed in camp.

Also, Matt Berg transferred home after spending last season as a redshirt with the University of Montana. Berg has been impressive late in camp in his kickoffs and field goals. He was named a special teams captain by his teammates.

Morrell said the difference between the Orediggers this year and at the same stage last year is “night-and-day.”

Last year, Morrell said his team was up and down at camp. The 2012 version has been consistent.

“The guys really showed up every single day,” the coach said. “That means something that the wheels are turning in the right direction for us. Because we had such a consistent camp we got so much more accomplished both fundamentally and schematically.

“Our guys in general are excited about the entire season.”