Prior to the start of the 2016 season, Saturday’s Eastern Oregon-Montana Western game in Dillon may not have been on the radar as a key clash in the Frontier Conference.
After all, the Mountaineers were picked to finish fourth in the league’s preseason coaches’ poll while the No. 25 Bulldogs were tabbed for sixth despite going 7-3 last year.
But that’s why games aren’t played on paper, as this weekend’s game, scheduled for 1 p.m., is a chance for one of the schools to cement its place among the league’s elite.
EOU, which was the last team left out of the preseason NAIA top 25 poll, is fresh off a 45-40 upset win over No. 2 Southern Oregon in last week’s season opener. Western sits at 2-0 after victories over Dickinson State and College of Idaho.
The two teams played a thriller last year in La Grande, with Western pulling out a 30-23 decision.
The key for the host Bulldogs through the first two games has been a punishing defense, and an equally punishing running attack.
The Bulldog defense in particular has shined, giving up just 26 total points in the two wins — an average of 11 fewer per game than the next closest Frontier team. The Bulldogs have been equally stingy against both the run and pass, giving up less than 270 yards per game, including just 359 passing yards in two games despite leading for the majority of both contests.
T.J. Benson is the leading tackler for Western so far with 16 stops, while Jay Owens and Zach Janis have 14 apiece. Owens and Janis have also combined for three interceptions on a defense that has forced six turnovers to start the year.
Offensively, the Bulldogs have been led by a rushing attack that has racked up over 170 yards per game and five total touchdowns so far. Senior running back Sam Rutherford has taken the bulk of those carries, piling up 252 yards and four scores on 55 totes. Austun Urlacher 98 yards and a score in relief of Rutherford.
That rushing attack has helped take the pressure off sophomore quarterback J.D. Ferris, who has completed a shade over 56 percent of his passes to go with two scores and three interceptions. Ferris’ top target this year has been Matt Lickfold, who has hauled in 10 catches for 120 yards and a score.
The Mountaineers are all about offense, and are led by arguably the top quarterback in the conference in Zach Bartlow.
Bartlow passed for nearly 2,500 yards last year while added over 550 on the ground and totaling 32 touchdowns — 16 of them coming in the final four games.
He has picked up in 2016 where he left off, passing for 292 yards, rushing for 70 and totaling four touchdowns in last week’s win over SOU.
Aside from Bartlow, running back Alfred Gross is the top rushing threat after picking up 87 yards last week. Josh Richards and Calvin Connors are the top pass-catchers, combining for 199 yards against the Raiders. Connors also is a dynamic kick returner and took a punt back for six last weekend.
The defense for EOU remains a question mark — especially after giving up nearly 500 yards a week ago — but is led by Michal Arenas, who had 16 tackles in the opener.