DILLON — The Montana Western football team redefined the term “balanced attack” in its Frontier Conference showdown with Southern Oregon, Saturday afternoon at Vigilante Stadium.
The Bulldogs scored on two rushing touchdowns, a pair of touchdown receptions, and added two interceptions which were returned for touchdowns in their 43-24 win over the Raiders.
The win could have served as payback for Bulldogs, who lost in a close game to the Raiders earlier this season, but head coach Ryan Nourse said it was about more than that after watching his team improve to 4-4 on the season.
“We worked hard this week and we were really disappointed in our performance against Eastern Oregon (last Saturday),” Nourse said. “We didn’t play like champions in that game. The guys worked their tails off this week and I was really proud of their performance.”
Southern Oregon took the early lead with a field goal in the first quarter but the Bulldogs responded with a 27-point straight second-quarter points to build a hefty lead.
Quarterback J.D. Ferris got the Bulldogs on the board when he bulled his way into the end zone from 1 yard out. A pair of touchdowns within a span of 20 seconds later in the quarter gave Western some breathing room.
Ferris threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to Beau Brekke to give the Bulldogs a 14-3 lead but that lead got even bigger when Jason Ferris intercepted a Jack Singler pass on the Raiders’ next offensive play and returned it 27 yards for a touchdown.
The Bulldog defense forced the Raiders into a three-and-out and Devyn Christain put the Western offense into prime territory with a punt return to the Southern Oregon 26. The Bulldogs took advantage of that when J.D. Ferris hit Tyler Murray with a 14-yard touchdown pass with 1:29 to play in the first half.
“This league is too good,” Nourse said. “When you get a chance to score, and you’ve got someone reeling, you’ve got to put those chances together and you’ve got to capitalize. We did it on both sides of the ball.
“I thought Devyn Christian had a great game returning the ball. All of the other balls that he caught, we worked on that a ton and he did a great job on that.”
Southern Oregon is a team that advanced to the NAIA championships in each of the past two seasons, partly because it believes that no deficit is too big. Despite struggling this season, the Raiders have pulled out late-game victories more than once.
The Raiders used the final minute-and-a-half in the second quarter to remind the Bulldogs of that by driving 69 yards to score a touchdown with 19.9 seconds left to play in the half.
The Bulldogs, who were on the wrong end of a late rally when they lost to the Raiders earlier this season, didn’t need the reminder.
“They were only down two scores, maybe three, but they’re a big team,” said running back Hunter Thomsen, who ran for 89 yards on 18 carries. “They’ve got a lot of playmakers who can make big plays and they can come back quick. We had that in the back of our minds the whole way. Even when the clock struck zero, we still had that in the back of our minds.”
Southern Oregon’s trademark second-half rally never came.
The Bulldogs’ offense stalled on its first possession of the second half but their defense made up for it when defensive back Zach Janis chalked up Western’s second interception of the game.
Singler’s pass was on target but the ball hit intended receiver Ray Vega in the hands before bouncing into Janis’ arms.
“There are things in football that you cannot do,” Southern Oregon coach Craig Howard said. “You cannot have penalties and you cannot have turnovers.
“That’s the thing we’ve got to solve and fix. We went into the game minus-10 in turnovers. You coach it to not turn the ball over but it’s frustrating when you do.”
The Bulldogs took advantage of the gift and added to their lead with a 28-yard field goal by Connor Greth.
“We started a little slow in the second half,” said J.D. Ferris, who threw for 230 yards. “That’s something we need to work on.
“But our defense has been getting the offense’s back all year. Those guys are battling out there and they play hard. It’s really nice to have them to lean on. They’ve basically carried us all season.”
The Raiders got one touchdown back in the third quarter when Singler and Matt Retzlaff connected for a 28-yard touchdown pass but the Bulldogs answered with 5:51 left in the game when Thomsen broke free for a 24-yard touchdown run.
Linebacker Taft Benson even had an answer to Southern Oregon’s final touchdown, which came with 3:41 to play. He picked off a Singler pass and returned it 25 yards for Western’s sixth touchdown with 30.8 seconds to play.
“We were in the nickel defense most of the time,” Benson said. “We had three guys deep and three guys underneath, and were just rushing three so it worked out pretty good.
“We knew that they threw a lot of screens and they do a lot of corner routes. We just practiced real well against that this week and it paid off in the game. They were coming back a little but we just kept taking it to them.”
Western’s M.J. Simkins added the exclamation point with an interception on the final play of the game, a Hail Mary into the end zone.
“We’re frustrated because of the scoreboard but we still take our hats off to Ryan Nourse and his boys,” Howard added. “They played really well.
“I thought our guys didn’t quit. We battled to the very end. They tried to give every ounce of effort they could to win the game but we didn’t win it.
“We’ve got two games left and I have good-character guys. They didn’t quit and they won’t quit on the season.”
The Bulldogs will host Carroll College next Saturday at 6 p.m., before closing out the regular season with a trip to Rocky Mountain College.
Southern Oregon, which will likely fall out of the NAIA Top 25 on Monday, will host MSU-Northern next week and Montana Tech the next.