Playoffs begin a week early for Orediggers

Playoffs begin a week early for Orediggers
The Montana Tech Orediggers walk through the tailgate on their way to the Bob Green Field last Saturday. Leading the way are Rial Gunlikson (41), Ryan Stemple (66), Zach Bunney (25), Tyler Sanders (55), Gunnar Kayser (11), Slaten Long (87) and Trevor Hopf (78). (Bill Foley photo)

By Bill Foley

The NAIA playoffs don’t start for Montana Tech until Nov. 19.

When the Orediggers play their regular-season finale Saturday at Southern Oregon in Ashland, however, Tech will already be in the must-win mindset. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. Mountain Time. (Radio: KBOW 550 AM, 101.5 FM or online)

If the No. 6-ranked Orediggers want to host a first-round playoff game — and potentially a second-round game — they almost certainly need to win their ninth straight game on Saturday.

“It’s a must for us,” Montana Tech coach Chuck Morrell said before his team took the long bus ride to the southwest corner of Oregon. “Our guys want in the worst way to play in front of the home crowd here in a week.”

While the Orediggers are facing an opponent that won’t be going to the playoffs, the Tech players and coaches know they are about to face a team that is dangerous.

The Raiders, who are celebrating Senior Day and Homecoming, are coming off back-to-back appearances in the national championship game. The won the title two years ago.

“It’s always a heated contest when we get together with these guys,” Morrell said. “This has actually become a big rivalry.”

That recent rivalry started when Tech beat Southern Oregon in double overtime in Morrell’s first game at Tech in 2011. It continued through Tech’s big win in Ashland last year.

“There’s a lot of history in this game, and the coaching staffs have been the same,” Morrell said. “They’re not going to the playoffs this year. They don’t have anything to lose. I think they’re going to play pretty loose and open.”

The Orediggers enter the game at 8-1, while the Raiders are 5-4 in conference and 5-5 overall. They lost a non-conference game at UC Davis.

Last week, Southern Oregon snapped a season-killing three-game losing streak with a 56-14 home win over MSU-Northern.

The Raiders lost quarterback Tanner Trosin to injury in the loss to Davis, which came on the second week of the season. Jack Singler, a 6-foot-3 redshirt senior, has taken over at quarterback and put up big numbers.

He has thrown for 300-plus yards in six of his eight games, including 400 yards two weeks ago at Montana Western and 387 yards last week. He has tossed 20 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.

“He’s a gunslinger,” Morrell said. “Their mindset is throw the ball vertically down the field. (Matt) Retzlaff is incredible. He’s been the best receiver in the league for years, and he’s still there.”

Retzlaff, who is finally a senior, has caught 71 passes for 960 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Morrell said the big plays are going to come for the Raiders. He said limiting the damage and getting stops in the red zone is the key.

“It’s foolish to think you’re going to stop everything they do,” Morrell said. “If they throw the ball vertically down field 35 times, are you going to stop them all? You’re not going sit there and hold them to 150 yards passing, that’s not realistic.”

It might also be foolish to think you can sit back and throw the ball down field all day against the Oredigger defense, which is the top-ranked unit in the league.

Senior linebacker Luke Benz has racked up eight and a half sacks to lead an Oredigger defense that has a league-leading 32 quarterback takedowns. Brock Beede has four sacks, while Tyler Sanders has three, and Drew Schleeman and Brock Polley each have two and a half.

Safety Gunnar Kayser, who is ranked second behind Nic Amestoy on the Orediggers in tackles, leads the Frontier Conference with six interceptions.

Kayser and cornerbacks Anthony Nelson and Andre Brown will be tested on Saturday.

“They’re still a very high-powered offense that can get up and down the field and score a lot of points,” Morrell said of the Raiders.

The Orediggers also possess a very potent offense. With 41.9 points per game, the Orediggers have the top-ranked scoring offense in the league. Tech is No. 2 behind Southern Oregon in total offense.

Junior quarterback Quinn McQueary has thrown for 22 touchdowns, nine of which came in the last two weeks when he won back-to-back Frontier Conference Offensive Player of the Week honors.

The Montana State transfer has passed for 2,447 yards and just six picks.

“The biggest statistic that sticks out in my mind is his completion percentage,” Morrell said of McQueary, whose 25-for-35 day raised his percentage on the season to better than 70 percent. “That’s incredible. Sixty is a great number. He’s north of 70 now, and that’s big time.”

McQueary’s determination and leadership doesn’t show up on the state sheet, but it certainly is obvious on the field.

“His focus is something that’s pretty special,” Morrell said. “To really be that wired in all the time, it’s a mental challenge to be able to do that. Of all his skill sets, that’s his strongest one right now.”

While McQueary was picked the Frontier’s top offensive player the last two weeks, he wasn’t an easy choice to be Tech’s nominee. Last week’s award could have easily gone to running back Nolan Saraceni or receivers Mitchell Keeton or Dion Williams.

“It may seem like a little bit of a lull at times,” Morrell said. “But we’ve got so many guys who can make plays down the field.

“Our offense has done a great job converting a lot of third and longs. Quinn gets out of the pocket and finds a guy downfield. Nolan, obviously, can go deep every time he touches the ball.”

The Orediggers left town at 5:30 a.m. Thursday. After practicing on the red turf at Easter Washington University in Cheney, they were heading to Portland Thursday night.

Tech will head to Ashland on Friday.

Morrell said his team cannot afford to have busleg.

“We’ve got to be really alert and in tune,” the coach said. “That’s the biggest challenge for us. After spending 16-17 hours on the bus, we’ve got to step off the bus and we’ve got to be engaged.”

In other Frontier Conference games, Montana Western looks to keep its slim playoff hopes alive when the Bulldogs travel to Billings to take on Rocky Mountain College, Eastern Oregon heads to Carroll College for a must-win game, and the College of Idaho plays at MSU-Northern.

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