Through three games, the Montana Tech football team already has as many losses in the Frontier Conference as it did in 10 last year.
Coach Chuck Morrell’s Orediggers, though, aren’t about to panic as the No. 18 Rocky Mountain Battlin’ Bears come to town for a Frontier Conference showdown on the Bob Green Field. Kickoff is at 1 p.m. at Alumni Coliseum. (Radio: KBOW 550 AM, 101.5 FM. Listen live)
“You’ve got to hang in there, you’ve got to stay the course and you’ve got to keep doing the things that make you a good football team,” Morrell said as his team attempts to stop a two-game slide.
The Orediggers fell to No. 21 after last week’s 29-22 home loss to Montana Western. Tech sits at 1-2 on the season.
Oredigger coach Chuck Morrell pointed out this week that his team is only an eyelash away from where it was at this point last year.
Tech beat Western 31-24 in double overtime in Dillon to improve to 2-1 early last season.
“We didn’t really play particularly well, but we found a way to win,” Morrell said. “We went through a similar type game up here, and we came out on the opposite end of it. You can’t overreact because the difference in that game last year was one play out of several hundred plays going one way or another.”
So it will be business as usual for the Orediggers when they take on the 3-1 Battlin’ Bears on Saturday.
Morrell said the two losses won’t be on the mind of his players or coaches when they hit the field. In fact, he said they are already gone.
“You can’t cry over a game for too long because we have an unbelievable test coming in this weekend,” Morrell said. “If you’re hung up on last week you’re not going to succeed the following week.”
The coach acknowledged that his team is still very much alive in the playoff hunt, but he said that really isn’t important right now.
“It told the guys right after the game, ‘Quit worrying about the rankings,'” Morrell said. “This league is too good for us not to focus on what’s right in front of us. That stuff takes care of itself if you do your job on Saturday.”
He said the Orediggers aren’t radically altering anything this early in the season.
“I don’t want to say we’ve going back to the basics because we’ve always been at the basics,” Morrell said. “That’s how I operate 365 days a year. We’ve got to practice right every day and we’ve got to do the fundamental things right every day. We continued to work on that this week.”
Morrell did say, though, that the Orediggers will be going back to No. 24. He said the team will give the ball more to Pat Hansen, who only had 13 carries each of the last weeks.
That should be good news for the Oredigger defense that has been on the field too often. A rested Oredigger offense is needed to take down Rocky’s high-powered attack. The Bears lead the NAIA averaging just under 400 passing yards per game.
Junior quarterback Bryce Baker is in his third year starting for Rocky. The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder has passed for 1,412 in four games, ranking him No. 2 in the NAIA behind Southern Oregon’s Austin Dodge. He has 11 touchdowns and four interceptions.
“Bryce Baker is having a phenomenal year this year,” Morrell said. “He is very comfortable right now. He and his receivers are always on the same page, he gets rid of the ball fast and he’s not making mistakes.
“He can throw the deep ball, he can throw the short game, he’s mobile enough to get himself out of trouble and extend plays. I think he’s having an excellent season so far.”
Andre McCullouch’s 26 receptions ranks No. 5 in the nation. He averages 20.4 yards per catch and he has scored five touchdowns.
“They’ve got a host of receivers that are excellent,” Morrell said. “McCulloch is one of the top receivers — period — in the country. The rest of the receiving corps is very efficient as well. All their guys have executed their scheme very well, and they play a lot of guys who are going to be problems.”
Jade Olson, a 5-foot-6, 185-pound running backer from Malta, averages 54.3 yards per game on the ground for the Bears. He is averaging 5.0 yards per carry and he has scored three touchdowns.
“I think a lot of the big plays in the passing game have been set up by the running game,” Morrell said.
Morrell said his defense, which didn’t force a turnover last week, has to play better. He wouldn’t blame Western’s game-winning touchdown drive on the offense for keeping the defense on the field so long.
“We did make some critical mistakes on defense, too,” Morrell said. “‘We had some really fatal mistakes due to guys trying to do too much.
“The No. 1 rule we’ve got is ‘You must do your job first.’ I think what we had on Saturday as the game progressed guys were trying to do too much. Obviously you respect that they want to make plays that badly, but they also need to execute the scheme that’s right in front of them. I always tell them if you execute the scheme, the plays will come.”
The last time the Orediggers played Rocky, Tech beat the Bears 24-7 last season in Billings. Oredigger linebacker Mike Touzinsky was named Frontier Conference Defensive Player of the Week after returning an interception for a score.
On the other side of the ball, Morrell said senior quarterback Brian Schwarzkoph will get his first start since he injured his hand during his sophomore season against MSU-Northern in Havre.
Sophomore Herman Tapley will also see time at quarterback. He and Schwarzkoph will switch off early like they did last week before Schwarzkoph got the call in the second half.
Alec Bray and Zach Kinney had a big game last week. The Orediggers want to get more players involved this week. So look for Tech to try to create opportunities for the likes of Clay Cavender, James Roberts, Braxton Lucero, Kevin Moss and Zach Bunney.
“We have to put the ball in the end zone,” Morrell said. “We did create some scoring opportunities for ourselves on Saturday, and for the first time all year we made some big plays. We’ve got to be more consistent moving the ball down the field, moving the chains and eating up a little bit of clock.”
“It’s a coaching cliché right now, but you’ve got to learn how to finish,” he said. “Every game in this league is going to come down to who is going to make the play in the fourth quarter. On Saturday, we obviously didn’t do it.”