By Bruce Sayler
Head coach Kyle Samson got his first win over College of Idaho and wide receiver Mark Estes scored his first touchdown in two years.
Saturday was a win-win day for 15th-ranked Montana Tech as it toppled the seventh-ranked, previously undefeated Yotes 44-35 in a Frontier Conference college football game played on a picture-perfect afternoon at Bob Green Field.
Temperatures in the 60s feeling like they were in the 70s wrapped around the crowd and participants while quarterback Blake Thielen was nearly flawless in directing the win despite the offense’s loss of its two top running backs, Blake Counts, and Kaleb Winterburn, to injuries. Fullback Landers Smith entered from the bullpen to come in on relief and pitched the save with 99 yards on 23 carries, mostly in the second half. His last tote picked up an Oredigger first down on fourth down and clinched the win with less than a minute left to play.
Estes and fellow receivers Wyatt Alexander, Kyle Torgerson and Jordan Jackson provided Thielen with enough alternate aerial weaponry keep the pressured turned up on C of I’s defense and make good on threats.
“We win because of our O-line and D-line,” Samson said, including the other key ingredients to the win. “It was a physical game and was more physical as it went. It’s the way we like it.”
“Our O-line dominated.” (The game boxscore and stats are available at godiggers.com)
It certainly did as Smith packed eight straight times in the last five minutes to pick up 21 yards and two first downs, running out the clock. The 6-foot, 220-pound chunk of granite’s last crash into the line picked up three yards on fourth-and-two, denying College of Idaho any more possessions.
The march was launched after the Yotes missed a 39-yard field goal try with 4 minutes, 53 seconds left on the clock. The try by Jacob DeMott appeared to have been partially blocked, possibly by Tel Arthur.
“The defense had a huge stop at the end of the game,” Samson credited. “Landers has been our third back and he was the next man up. He did what he had to. He’s one of our leaders.
“And, I’m so damn proud of our line. “
Smith is a senior from Charlo.
Montana Tech led all the way. The Orediggers jumped to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter as Counts tallied on tackle-breaking carries of 9 and 2 yards, and Ryan Lowry kicked two extra points and a 28-yard field goal.
Counts left later in the half with what looked to be a bad shoulder, and his backup, Winterburn, followed shortly thereafter, also with an injury. Montana Tech was playing the No. 7 team in NAIA without its top two ballcarriers.
“But, I think we’ll get them back,” Samson said, sounding optimistic about quick recoveries for both.
Alexander and Torgersen both made acrobatic pass receptions that not only might earn them spots on “America’s Got Talent,” but set up the early scores. Alexander’s was a layout snare of about 5 yards that landed him at the 2.
The Yotes struck back with a 42-yard scoring pass play to John Kreps from QB Andy Peters about a minute and a half before the end of the quarter.
Estes’ intense concentration had him snatch a Thielen pass in the end zone against two defenders as Montana Tech increased its lead to 24-7 on the 43-yard hookup with 13:35 left in the half.
“It felt awesome,” Estes said.
He missed the last year-and-a-half of football because of a torn ACL and only got back to action last weekend for “a couple of reps” in his team’s homecoming victory over Eastern Oregon.
“My last? Maybe the Northern game in 2021, maybe the one before that,” he said of the last time he scored a touchdown. “It’s (the recovery process) been a roller-coaster. It’s good to be back.”
The crowd ooed about the double team that appeared on Estes after he seemed to break open in the end zone. Estes said he wasn’t aware.
“I did not see the defenders,” he said. “I saw the ball and I trust my quarterback to get it to me with a good throw. It was a good throw by BT (Blake Thielen) and our O-line got him time to step up and make that good throw.”
Estes played his high school ball at Flint Creek (Drummond-Philipsburg) for three years then moved to Kalispell Glacier for his senior year and was initially signed by Montana State before he transferred to Montana Tech.
Thielen’s day included 17 completions in 27 attempts for 361 yards and no interceptions. His other TD pass was a 20-yarder to Torgerson about 4 minutes before halftime. It came after Jon Schofield scored for the Yotes on a 3-yard run.
College of Idaho scored again before the half when Peters threw to Brock Richardson for a 35-yard TD play, and Lowry added a 36-yard field goal for the Orediggers as time ran out. Montana Tech’s lead was 34-21 at halftime.
The Yotes had their strongest quarter in the third as Montana Tech was still adjusting its running game rhythm after the losses of Counts and Winterburn. Schroder scored on another 3-yarder as the Oredigger lead shrank to 34-28 three minutes into the second half.
Lowry booted his third field goal of the day, this one from 23 yards as the Orediggers clung on to its edge. The Yotes threatened it with a 10-yard scoring pass, Peters to Schofield. Montana Tech’s lead was only 37-35 after three periods.
Smith and Montana Tech’s defense took over the fourth quarter with Thielen capably at the offensive controls.
The Orediggers used up the first six minutes of the fourth-quarter clock on a 15-play scoring march. Estes converted on a jet sweep, 5 yards on 3rd-and-4, and Thielen threw to Torgerson for a 15-yard pickup on 3rd-and-3 as the drive continued. A 15-yard personal foul penalty against C of I on 3rd-and-9 put the ball on the Yotes’ 15-yard line and stretched the drive again. Thielen faced 3rd-and-7 when he connected with Jackson on a 9-yard pass to the 3-yard line. Smith carried three straight times and bulled across the goal line on the last one. Montana Tech’s lead was back to 44-35 with 8:51 left on the clock.
Eleven plays and four minutes later, DeMott set up for his ill-fated field goal attempt.
Montana Tech got the ball back and never gave it up again.
“Blake Thielen is playing as well as anybody,” Samson said. “Blake’s been on fire the last few weeks. And, our receivers made plays. Today, we had four or five guys making plays. Our receivers got the 50-50 balls and the big runs after the catches.”
The only turnover of the day was an interception by Oredigger Major Niccum on a tipped ball that set up Counts’ second TD. Angel Sanchez led the team in tackles with 11 while Jaden MacNeil and Cole Wyant each collected eight. Oredigger receiving leaders included Alexander with three catches for 131 yards, Torgerson with four for 81 and Jackson with six for 70.
Peters was 28-for-42 passing for College of Idaho. He threw for 354 yards, including three touchdowns. He was also his team’s leading rusher with 56 yards on seven carries. Kreps caught five passes for 85 yards to lead the Yotes. Matthew Iwamizu led the C of I defense with 14 tackles. The Montana Tech offensive line allowed College of Idaho only one tackle for loss, a 1-yard sack by Austin Shepherd.
The win lifted Montana Tech to 2-0 in conference games this year and 3-1 overall. The Orediggers will be on the road next weekend, playing Southern Oregon in Ashland, Oregon on Saturday.