Orediggers pound Blue Hawks in playoff opener

That one was for the entire Frontier Conference.

Montana Tech showed that the NAIA might want to rethink its policy of giving conference champion an automatic bid into the playoffs by beating up on Dickinson State, 44-10, Saturday in a first-round NAIA playoff game at Alumni Coliseum. Stats

“We have a responsibility to honor our conference when we’re in the playoffs,” Montana Tech coach Chuck Morrell said after the Orediggers dismantled the North Star Conference champions. “There’s a lot of teams in our conference that could be very well in our place or in the playoffs and being successful. It’s very important for us to represent on a national stage.”

The day wasn’t all good for the Orediggers, however. The top four teams in the NAIA playoffs also won Saturday, so the No. 5 Orediggers will most likely hit the road for next week’s second round.

Nolan Saraceni, who was named the Offensive Player of the Game, ran for 163 yards and three touchdowns, and Clay Cavender added two TDs on the ground to lead the Frontier Conference champion Orediggers (10-1) to their eighth straight win.

“The guys up front and the other guys are blocking their butts off,” said Saraceni, who now has 1,620 yards on the season. “I’ve definitely got to give a shout out to them. Those guys are working hard every play, ever down.”

Kolby Kansala added a touchdown reception from Andrew Loudenback, and Matt Berg booted a 19-yard field goal.

Senior defensive lineman Jacob Crawford had praise for everyone on the Oredigger roster.

“It was a team effort,” Crawford said after making seven tackles, second only to teammate David Meis’ 10. “That’s a big mantra on this team on both sides of the ball, team effort. Today we made a few mistakes that we wish we could have back, but ultimately it was a great team effort.”

Even though the scoreboard looked like the Orediggers were on top of their game, that wasn’t entirely the case on Saturday.

Tech turned the ball over three time, including a fumble that killed a drive on the opening possession of the game.

Drew Johnson recovered the fumble for the Blue Hawks, and star running back Tray Boone showed why he made the top play on SportsCenter on Dickinson’s first offensive play.

Boone raced around the left end for 56 yards to the Oredigger 9-yard line.

Tech’s defense, though, responded. Gunner Kayser and Levi Dawes made tackles on Boone, and Xavier Marsden broke up a third-down pass to force the Blue Hawks to kick a field goal.

Montana Tech's Xavier Marsden breaks up a pass intended for DIckinson's Joshua Perry-Kruse.

Montana Tech’s Xavier Marsden breaks up a pass intended for DIckinson’s Joshua Perry-Kruse.

Tech wasn’t looking up to Dickinson on the scoreboard for long.

A long Zach Bunney kick return set up Tech’s next drive, which ended with a 26-yard Cavender run to put the Orediggers up for good at 7-3.

On the play, Cavender faked a handoff to Saraceni on the read option, and busted around the left end for a score.

“We had some minor setbacks, but our offense just knows how roll and come back and hit them hard,” Saraceni said.

Saraceni’s first touchdown, a 3-yard scamper, extended the lead to 13-3. Tech went for 2, and the run failed.

Berg’s field goal made it 16-3 with 9 minutes, 55 seconds left in the second half. That kick came shortly after receiver Sean Sullivan threw a 44-yard pass to the 4-yard line to Beau-Riley Pearson on a trick play.

Saraceni’s second TD, this time from 4 yards out, made it a 23-3 lead, and the Orediggers looked to have extended the lead even further heading into the half.

However, Alec Bray’s electrifying punt return for a touchdown was called back by a block in the back.

Dickinson clawed back into the game in the second half.

Devin Martin picked off a tipped Loudenback pass to start things rolling for the Blue Hawks.

Quarterback Kyler Ray hang a puss up to Dalton Reid on third and long. The play turned into a 59-yard gain to the Oredigger 3.

Three plays later, Ray hit Austin Brown for a 3-yard score to cut the lead to 23-10.

That was as close as the Blue Hawks would come.

The Orediggers answered with Mr. Big Play himself, Kansala. The big tight end caught a Loudenback pass over the middle for 51-yard touchdown.

The score was Kansala’s third TD in two games.

“All he does is catch touchdowns,” Morrell said with a laught. “He’s 6-4, 6-5, he runs well, and he’s just really difficult matchup. Safeties have a hard time matching up with him. Linebackers certainly can’t match up with him. You’ve just got to the ball in his zip code. Anytime the ball gets close to him, he’s going to go up and get it.”

Saraceni praised his quarterback, who moved to tight end and then back to quarterback when Quinn McQueary and Dawson Reardon went down with injuries.

“He’s been doing great,” Saraceni said. “It shows in every game. You’ve got to love the kid for keeping his head up and giving a 110 percent coming back to the quarterback situation.

“He’s definitely a smart guy,” Saraceni added. “He’s smart off the field and on the field. He knows where things are. He knows where to throw it and when to throw it.”

Saraceni scored on a 3-yard run, while Cavender punched in a 2-yard run to cap the scoring.

Beau-Riley Pearson gets the block to spring Clay Cavender for his second TD of the day.

Beau-Riley Pearson gets the block to spring Clay Cavender for his second TD of the day.

The Orediggers outgained the Blue Hawks 514-296, and Tech racked up 307 yards rushing.

“We felt like we were going to be able to establish our ground game today,” Morrell said. “It was something we really wanted to get back to after last week. We know that the future success of this team is on the backs of our offensive linemen and Nolan and Clay.”

Boone ran for 110 yards on 10 carries, all in the first half. He sat out the second half with an undisclosed injury.

“Tray Boone was all that he was billed out to be,” Morrell said. “He popped a couple big runs on us early, and he’s hard to chase down.”

Most of Boone’s yards came on two runs.

“I heard about the SportsCenter video with him so I knew a little bit about him,” Crawford said. “I knew he was fast, but I’m proud of the guys for containing him overall.”

Drew Schleeman added six tackles, while Dawes registered four. Cornerback DeAngelo Bell was named the Defensive Player of the Game after making four tackles and breaking up four passes.

Tech's DeAngelo Bell points toward the north end zone after the Orediggers recovered a fumble.

Tech’s DeAngelo Bell points toward the north end zone after the Orediggers recovered a fumble.

Crawford said the Oredigger defense got a major assist from the Tech offense.

“You’ve got like it when the offense goes out and their drives are so much longer because of how well we run the ball,” Crawford said. “It’s just pound, pound, pound instead of coming to the sideline and having to get right back out there.

“You can’t underestimate a great running game. It does wonders for you defense and your offense.”

The Orediggers will find out their travel destination for next week when the second-round pairings are announced Sunday.

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