It’s been argued that every game in the Frontier Conference is big, but Saturday’s 2 p.m. showdown between No. 22 Montana Western and No. 12 Southern Oregon is big for different reasons.
It’s a chance for one team to continue its solid start to the season and potentially cement a conference favorite in the cellar, while the other — a perennial NAIA power — is just hoping to get its season back on track.
The Bulldogs are looking to rebound after being handed their first defeat of the season, 35-23, at the hands of upstart Eastern Oregon. The hosting Raiders are just looking to break into the win column for the first time this season after falling to EOU in their opener, then to FCS UC-Davis last week, 52-35.
A win for Western keeps it, at worst, a game back of EOU and Rocky — which visits Montana Tech on Saturday — and sends SOU to an 0-3 start, 0-2 in league play, putting last season’s national runner-up in a huge hole one-third of the way into the season.
On the flip side, an SOU win keeps it in the thick of the Frontier race where it could join a host of teams currently at .500 in league play. A loss for Western could send it to the bottom half of the standings and out of the NAIA top 25.
The two teams played an overtime thriller in Dillon last season, when the Raiders stopped Western at the goal line three times in OT to preserve a 37-30 win.
Western dominated in the first two weeks, but is looking to rebound after giving up over 520 yards of total offense to EOU. That including 343 passing yards and three touchdowns of 45 yards or longer.
Western’s offense racked up 241 yards to add to its league-leading rushing attack. Sam Rutherford and Hunter Thomsen combined for 161 yards and a touchdown on 38 carries. But the passing game collected just 155 yards on 37 attempts, despite two scores.
The Raiders have clicked on all cylinders offensively in their two losses, averaging 572 yards of total offense and 37.5 points per game.
Quarterback Tanner Trosin is averaging 394 yards per game, including 428 against an FCS defense last week. His top target has been Matt Retzlaff, who has 18 catches for 243 yards and four TDs.
While the offense has been rolling, the same can’t be said of an SOU defense that is surrendering more than 535 yards per game, worst in the Frontier by nearly 100 yards.
College of Idaho at No. 10 Eastern Oregon, 2 p.m.
Eastern Oregon (2-0) opened 2016 with a pair of wins over top-25 teams after, for years, being on the verge of breaking into the Frontier’s top tier.
Wins over then-No. 2 in-state rival SOU, and then-No. 25 Western have propelled the Mountaineers to No. 10 in the first regular-season poll.
But Mountaineers coach Tim Camp also knows that a young, talented College of Idaho (1-1, 0-1) team would love to claim an upset of its own to kick-start its season.
EOU quarterback Zach Bartlow (39 of 58 for 635 yards, 2 INTs and 6 scores) has led his team to a conference-high 40 points per game. Running back Alfred Gross is averaging 7 yards per carry. Wideouts Calvin Connors and Skylar Williams have combined for 16 catches and more than 400 yards with three scores.
College of Idaho’s running backs Mike Kirby and Colby Brown, along with QBs Tyler Cox and Darius-James Peterson have the Yotes averaging 172 yards per game rushing.
-- for The Montana Standard
No. 21 Carroll College at MSU-Northern, 1 p.m.
Carroll followed its opening win over Tech in a nail-biter by being upset by unranked Rocky for a second straight season, but still managed to stay in the NAIA top 25.
The Saints (1-1) should have little difficulty remaining in the polls against a Lights (0-2) squad that quickly finds itself in familiar territory at the bottom of the Frontier standings.
A veteran defensive front has Carroll averaging a league-high 4.3 sacks per game, and could have its way against a Northern offense putting up league-lows of 15.5 points and 261 yards per contest.