Difficult, it was, to ascertain on Saturday night whether so close is really any a better distance from which to be than too far. For soothing purposes, maybe it is. The exasperation, however, might have only been compounded.
It seemed though the DiggerVision viewable scoreboard relentlessly blinked about possible chances in time remaining while it illuminated the south end zone at Alumni Coliseum as Eastern Oregon rallied first, then held on, for a 26-23 Frontier Conference college football victory.
The closeness of this result seemed nearly immeasurable. Story lines flipped through the spectator’s head, especially when strongly considering the Montana Tech angle. The Orediggers were the home team and well worthy of the spotlight on a night when former standout player and current community proponent Lee Alt was stood in it at his game — “Lee Alt Day” at the scene of the time.
All the way through, it seemed the Orediggers would win and what a headline it would be to crow about the fall debut, an upset over a nationally ranked team. However, teams are usually rated highly for reasons and in Eastern Oregon’s part, it may be resiliency.
The Montana Tech short passing game seemed lethal in the first half with Deer Lodge product Trent Thomas particularly adept in the YAC (yards after catch) department. Long passes were guarded better and the air game hadn’t yet sufficiently opened the running attack. Oredigger ball carrier Pat Hansen, however, took care of a lot of that himself with his inspirational play later.
Both defenses seemed superb. Montana Tech’s looked to be a little more stubborn earlier while the Mountaineers’ took on a bend-but-don’t-break characteristic. Eastern Oregon toed in and stiffened, creating turnovers at what became most inopportune times for the Orediggers,
So, as Thomas and the Montana Tech “D” seemed to be the theme, a winning one, in the first half, a goal-line stand and big plays by receiver Kevin Moss looked like the storybook popouts ready to emerge in the second.
Nate Thompson’s fumble recovery at his own 46-yard line exhibited first evidence as the Orediggers rebounded from a drive-stopping interception only minutes earlier. The recovery lit a momentum that burned with Moss’ over-the-middle diving grab of a Nick Baker throw to the Mountaineers’ 4-yard line.
Hansen scored the touchdown as the Orediggers went ahead 16-13 early in the fourth quarter.
So, Hansen had stepped to the forefront, too. After the interception stalled the previous Montana Tech threat, Hansen, a captain even as only a sophomore, exhorted his offensive teammates. There wasn’t a lot of pep in the talk, but it was loud and delivered through good reception.
“We’re down four points. We need a touchdown,” Hansen ordered. “They WILL NOT take this from us.”
Energized, the Orediggers then scored on the Hansen TD set up by Moss’ lunging, acrobatic catch.
The adrenaline now flowed. Montana Tech regained possession and chose not to just try to run out the clock. Too much time likely remained, but the amount was small enough to at least spawn discussion.
Hansen capped an aggressive offensive drive with two big runs, scoring on a 24-yard run as the unit played inspiringly. The Orediggers led 23-13 and a big win for coach Chuck Morrell’s program seemed imminent.
Then it vanished — in less than five minutes.
The Mountaineers proved their resiliency, flashed their poise.
With Jason Simonis coming on in relief at quarterback in the second half, Eastern Oregon found its passing gear the waning seconds. Simonis threw for two late touchdowns, the last one after a Montana Tech fumble, to achieve the victory.
A Montana Tech defense that had played so well, so smartly and confidently, was only obviously beaten on one play all game long. Unfortunately for the Orediggers it was in the last few ticks when Kedrick Starr could not have been any more alone in the back of the end zone than if he had entered it undetected from the rear. Two Oredigger defenders were stationed at the goal line, didn’t see him and yielded a cushion of 10 yards.
Simonis found the receiver and the Mountaineers had regained the lead, the 26-23 margin that would stand.
Montana Tech still had time for a desperate measure and did gain big yardage, most of it on another Baker missile to Moss, to set up a field goal opportunity, slim as it might be. After a miss, a penalty allowed for another try from 35 yards on third down. The snap was bad, rolled to the holder and he was credited with a spike, an incomplete pass ruling that brought on fourth down and another try from the distance. It missed.
A quieted home crowd filed past the DiggerVision that was telecasting postgame interviews by buttesports.com reporter Bill Foley. Some stopped to watch and listen. A handful of Eastern Oregon fans who made the long trip from La Grande whooped and hollered.
A good game was seen. The home fans recognized such, but obviously would have preferred to have been doing the celebrating at that point rather than finding some solace in a moral victory. It was ditto for the coaches and players.
Montana Tech’s is a program that looks ready to turn the corner — from last year’s adjustments to a new system — to one in contention for Frontier Conference and .national note.
The highlight storylines need to mesh and the end product will be the success.
What a stage for such this Saturday’s game with Carroll could provide.