Talented Lights a challenge for Orediggers

It seemed kind of crazy that Montana Tech played a football game that counted on Aug. 23. It is even more bizarre that the Orediggers will be playing a must-win game on Aug. 30.

That is basically the scenario Saturday night as the Orediggers take on MSU-Northern at 6 p.m. on the Bob Green Field at Alumni Coliseum. (Radio: KBOW 550 AM, 101.5 FM or online)

In the world of NAIA football — where a loss in a “money game” against a Division I opponent can make a team miss the playoffs — teams don’t start 0-2 and recover their season.

Righting the ship, however, will not be an easy task.

“I’ve always felt that Northern is one of the most talented teams in the league,” Tech head coach Chuck Morrell said. “When they’re hot, they are a dangerous unit.”

The Orediggers faced a hot team when Saturday in Dillon, falling 38-6 to Montana Western.

That game, though, is in the past. Right now, the Orediggers don’t have time to focus on that.

“We had a good week of practice, and the guys are all excited to have a home game,” Morrell said. “Guys showed up focused and ready to work.”

The Lights come to town as a team under transition.

Defensive coordinator Jake Eldridge was named the interim head coach after head coach Mark Samson resigned two weeks before the start of the season. Eldridge has been with the Lights for seven years.

“They’re obviously in a little bit of a transition, but all of their main kids stuck together,” Morrell said. “They’ve got a ton of experience coming back. That certainly will help them.”

Northern comes to town with an experienced starting quarterback in senior Travis Dean and a bruising tail back in 5-foot-10, 205-pound Zach McKinley.

McKinley rushed for 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns in 10 games last season. The Great Falls product averaged 5.9 yards per carry.

“He’s one of the best backs in the league,” Morrell said. “They’ve got some big-play guys on offense, and a lot of guys coming back. They’ve got a very good quarterback. He’s been there for a long time. He started several games last year.

“They have their entire offensive line back. They have one of the biggest, most-physical offensive lines in the league.”

Morrell also praised the perennially-tough Lights defense.

“They’ve got a good linebacking corps, and they’ve got good depth on the defensive line,” Morrell said. “We are certainly going to be challenged. They’re a big, physical team.”

Despite the shakeup on top, Morrell said the Lights come to town with high hopes for the 2014 season.

“I really expect to get their best shot when they come down here,” Morrell said. “Just like everybody else they have high expectations heading into their season, and they’ve got some of the best talent in the league.”

The Orediggers don’t feel like they gave Western their best shot last week. Tech trailed 21-0 after one quarter and 35-0 at halftime.

“Our biggest focus is do the little things right, right from the start of the football game,” Morrell said. “Obviously it was an issue a week ago when we compounded bad problems. We took a bad play and stacked a couple more bad plays on top of it.”

Andrew Loudenback will get his second start at quarterback. The sophomore transfer struggled in his first game as an Oredigger, throwing two interceptions.

Loudentback passed for 154 yards. He completed 18 of 34 passes and hit eight different receivers.

Senior Braxton Lucero caught six passes for 51 yards. Zach Bunney and Alec Bray each caught three passes. Bray made a diving catch for a touchdown.

Pat Hansen managed 51 yards on 16 carries against the Bulldog defense.

On the other side of the ball, sophomore safety Rial Gunlikson led the Orediggers with eight tackles. David Meis recorded seven tackles including three that went for a loss.

Senior lineman Austin Brinkworth and senior linebacker Mike Touzinsky each recorded four tackles.

The Oredigger defense was put in bad field position early in the game. Western’s first three touchdowns came after Western took over possession inside Tech territory.

Morrell, though, said he is expecting more out of his defense.

“Defensively we’ve got to get a stop when we’re in those situations,” he said.

Morrell said Saturday’s loss had nothing to do with effort.

“They’re hungry,” Morrell said of his Orediggers. “We put a lot of time in through spring and summer and a really busy fall camp. Guys want to win. It’s a challenging sport to go out there and to not have success. Everybody understands what we stand for, and everybody understands our philosophy here. It’s just a matter of execution.”

Morrell said the Orediggers can’t wait to get back on the field.

“Coming off a bad game, the thing that you want the most is an opportunity to get back on the field,” he said. “Getting back on the field and proving ourselves is something we look forward to. Our guys are excited about being at home and playing in front of the home crowd.”

The Orediggers are off next week. In two weeks they travel to Helena to take on Carroll College.

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