BUTTE — The NAIA National Game of the Week will be played in Butte on Saturday and a better script could not be written.
Montana Western, ranked No. 15 in the country, comes to Bob Green Field at Alumni Coliseum on Saturday, to play No. 22 Montana Tech with kickoff slated for 6 p.m. It is each team’s only night game of the season.
“Honestly I think it might be the most important game of the season,” Montana Tech fullback Nate Sander said. “We’re excited about this game.”
Frontier Conference football titles and playoff berths could very well hang in the balance this week. Western is currently tied with College of Idaho for first in the conference standings, while Tech’s only loss is to the Yotes.
The Bulldogs play C of I on the road in the second-to-last game of the year, while the Orediggers do get another shot at the Yotes. But the winning team in this matchup will hold a crucial tiebreaker — this is the only time this season Montana Tech and Montana Western face off.
“It’s easily going to be our biggest crowd of the year … there’s a lot at stake for both teams,” Montana Tech head coach Chuck Morrell said. “I think both communities are going to show up and support and it’s gonna be a blast.”
The ‘Digger-Dawg’ or ‘I-15 Rivalry’ has nearly always been a tight game over the past few seasons and this year should not be any different. Montana Tech’s defense has picked up right where it left off last year and 11th in the country in total yards allowed per game (274.3) as well as sixth in pass defense efficiency, a stat that is useful for determining how opposing quarterbacks fare of the course of a game.
It is no secret the defensive backs for the Orediggers are talented and have plenty of depth, but so do the Bulldogs, who are one spot behind Montana Tech in the national pass defense efficiency.
The game has all the looks of a defensive slugfest.
“Our secondary has to play their best game of the year, no doubt,” Morrell said. “I think Western has a great stable of wide receivers, their quarterback play is excellent and they’re being very successful throwing the ball down the field right now, so our secondary is going to have to play fantastic football to give us the edge to be able to get the win.”
Jon Jund is in his second year as the starting quarterback for the Bulldogs and has been tremendous through four games, completing 79-of-129 passes for 1249 yards and 12 touchdowns. His passing yardage per game average (312.3) ranks third in the entire NAIA, as does his 321.5 total yards per game.
Simply put? He’s dynamic and poses a tough test for the Oredigger defensive backs.
Jund has, however, thrown five interceptions this year and Tech pressuring him into a bad pass attempt that gets picked off could have huge implications for the game.
Life after Fike
With news that All-American running back Jed Fike was done for the season this week, it definitely changes things for Montana Tech.
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But that said, it’s not like the cupboard is bare. Running backs Blake Counts and Tyler Folkes have been more than serviceable in his absents. They also got a trial run two weeks ago against MSU-Northern, as Fike did not play in that game.
The results were strong — though the caveat here is that the Lights have just one win this season — as they combined for 216 yards on the ground.
“We have confidence in them,” senior offensive lineman Grant Benz said. “As long as we do our jobs, we have a lot of great backs on this team. And if we do our jobs, they’re all going to make huge plays.”
For Fike, the news is obviously tough and to the rest of the conference as well.
“It really is too bad that he got hurt,” Montana Western linebacker Jason Ferris said. “Him and I talked a bit this past spring. It would’ve been fun to play against him because every year that we’ve been in college, even when he was at Dickinson, we’ve played each other.”
Jet’s biggest test
If the run game sputters, it will fall on quarterback Jet Campbell to make plays for the Orediggers through the air.
Trevor Hoffman is his favorite receiver, tallying 24 catches for 436 yards and four scores as he continues to be the possession wide out Tech was looking to develop after Dion Williams’s graduation. Butte product Kiley Caprara has also notched 10 catches for 117 yards and Sander has grabbed seven for 89 yards.
Campbell has been uber-efficient — he’s 55-of-92 for 812 yards and six touchdown passes with just a single pick. With Western allowing 240.5 yards per game through the air (which is still a pretty good mark), it might just be a place where Montana Tech can find an advantage.
“He’s been executing our offense at a really high rate, which is a positive and obviously he’s going to be challenged in this game,” Morrell said. “Western’s got a very good defensive setup and he has to play great for us and I know he will, he’s competitive.”
Don’t turn the ball over
Every football coach in the history of the sport has very likely harped on their team about not turning the ball over and Morrell and Bulldog head coach Ryan Nourse certainly have this week.
It might even be more crucial for the Orediggers, as Montana Western has picked off seven passes, recovered three fumbles, scored three defensive touchdowns and blocked two kicks.
Those are pretty incredible numbers.
“No. 1 we have to play mistake-free football,” Morrell said. “Western’s had a tremendous asset in their program where they create turnovers or big plays, big momentum team all the team. No. 1 is take care of the football and make sure we have great field position.”
406mtsports.com's Evan Reier contributed to this report