DILLON — Montana Western quarterback Bennett Gibson watched his team fall into a quick 14-point deficit against the fifth-ranked team in the nation and knew that there was only one way to answer.
The Bulldogs did just that, rallying back and unleashing a balanced combination of big pass plays, a bruising running game and a hawkish defensive effort to pull out a stunning 42-35 victory and topple the undefeated Montana Tech Orediggers on Saturday afternoon at Vigilante Stadium.
Southern Oregon is now the lone undefeated team in the Frontier Conference and Tech's loss may cost it home field advantage come playoff time. The Bulldogs improve to 3-3 and have strung together consecutive wins for the first time this season.
“It was honestly the best win I’ve ever had,” said the senior Gibson, who completed 22 of 38 pass attempts for 365 yards and three touchdowns and also ran for a pair of scores. “We were down quick. We could have just fell down and went home but we kept fighting and we came out against the No. 5 team.”
Gibson broke a late fourth quarter 35-35 tie on a five-yard quarterback keeper after a blocked Tech punt five plays earlier setup the Bulldogs for the go-ahead drive.
Tech’s attempt to answer Western’s 42-35 lead was silenced by a last-minute interception from sophomore defensive back Sonny Oana.
Gibson took a knee, and the party was on in Dillon.
Western running back Hunter Thomsen, who sliced through Tech’s defense for 117 yards, echoed Gibson’s thoughts.
“There’s no better feeling,” said Thomsen. “It was a great win and it was an ever better game. Coming into the game we hadn’t played our best. But we fought hard and played some of our best football."
The upset was no fluke. Western’s offense topped the ‘Diggers in total passing yardage, rushing yardage and its defense intercepted Tech quarterback Quinn McQueary three times.
Despite Tech’s perfect record and Top 10 ranking heading into its game against a Western team that dropped from the Top 25 earlier in the season, Gibson said those numbers didn’t phase the Bulldogs.
“It’s a rivalry game, no matter whose ranked what or what the records are,” said Gibson. “It doesn’t matter. We knew if we could play as a team we could win.”
Tech, still aiming to collect a third-straight Frontier conference championship, relied on its high-tempo offense to charge to a two-score lead in the first quarter.
After forcing the Bulldogs to punt on their first possession, McQueary unloaded a series of quick-strikes to move the ball to the Western 12-yard line where workhorse running back Jed Fike, who finished the game with 123 rushing yards and three touchdowns, barreled in for the score.
Three plays into Western’s next drive, Tech’s Reid Siderius picked off a Gibson pass. Three plays later, McQueary tossed a swing pass to Fike who scampered for a 38-yard score.
For a Tech team accustomed to runaway wins this season, the game was unfolding as expected.
A Western punt on the next drive gave the impression that a rout was at play. But Tech’s Tristan Clark intercepted a McQueary pass and the game then transformed into a scoring frenzy.
The Bulldogs found the endzone on a 15-yard scoring pass from Gibson to Walter McKitrick. Western then reeled off two more unanswered touchdowns before Tech evened things up with another Fike rushing touchdown.
Despite some errant throws from McQueary and some uncharacteristic penalties – including a personal foul after a 3-yard McQueary scoring run that forced kicker Derrick Holt to miss the subsequent 35-yard PAT kick – Tech still looked capable of scoring points in a hurry.
But in the end it was offensive mistakes when they could least afford them and the defense’s game-long struggle to contain Thomsen or bottle up Gibson that ultimately doomed the Orediggers.
Tech coach Chuck Morrell said that miscues from his team sealed its fate, but their keeping their one-loss record in reasonable perspective.
“In the second half we made far too many mistakes to win the game,” said Morrell. “But we get to decide where we’re going to go from here. We’ll still wake up on Monday and be a ranked team. We still have an opportunity to win the conference. We’re not going to panic, and that’s the sign of a veteran team.”
Tech wide receiver Dion Williams, who led both teams in total receptions with 10, said the loss hasn't altered the Orediggers' season objectives.
"Our goal is still reaching the National Championship, we just have to dust this off," said Williams. "We wish we could have that back but we just got to go back to the drawing board and come out better next time."
Tech heads into its rematch against Carroll College on Saturday while Western travels to the College of Idaho.