Montana Tech is standing atop the Frontier mountain.The Orediggers climbed and have remained there for the last two seasons. And if the Frontier coaches are to be believed, the Orediggers are the favorites to win the conference for a third consecutive year.
Carroll College is looking up at Tech, chasing the Orediggers, once again trying to reclaim a conference crown it wore for 14 seasons.
What better way to start Week 1?
The lights will be on at Alumni Coliseum on Thursday as the two teams play a rare evening game. The stakes will be high. Neither team will ease into this season. The King of the Mountain will attempt to stay there, and the Saints are seeking retribution.
Last season started with the two squaring off, and Carroll sneaking away with a 27-24 victory in Helena. Then, it appeared the Saints would be challenging for at least a share of the Frontier. Two weeks later, the Saints were 1-2 and reeling. In the teams' second matchup in Week 6, Tech showed it had become the Frontier’s strongest team, going on to a 34-15 win in Butte.
Tech could be that same team yet again.
The squad returns seven starters on offense, five on defense and two special teamers.
At the front of it all is the Frontier’s leading offensive threat last season, quarterback Quinn McQueary, who averaged a league-best 307.5 yards per game. He completed 69 percent of his passes for 3,021 yards and 26 touchdowns through the air, with eight interceptions. He also had 361 rushing yards and seven more touchdowns.
“Everything on offense runs through one guy: Quinn McQueary,” Montana Tech coach Chuck Morrell said. “He’ll be our third-year starter. I think he’s incredible. He’s been one of the most dynamic offensive players in our league, definitely the most competitive. And one of the most competitive young men I’ve ever coached in my life. He wants to win worse than anybody. When that’s your leader and that guy is touching the ball every single time, that’s exciting.”
If there’s any good news for Carroll, it’s the absence of Tech running back Nolan Saraceni, who graduated. The two-time Frontier Conference Player of the Year averaged 134 yards per game last year and had 19 touchdowns on the ground. Even still, Morrell feels like his offense is strong.
“We lose the offensive player of the year,” Morrell said. “As we look at our depth chart today, we feel like running back might be our deepest spot. I have high faith in those guys to execute the scheme, and obviously Quinn takes some pressure off those guys.”
Tech returns seven of its top eight offensive linemen, and the same statistic holds true for its defensive line, where Capital High product Ty Sanders is leading the way.
“He will outwork everybody,” Morrell said. “He is so competitive. He’s always the guy always in the best shape. Things will be dictated up front by him.”
The Saints counter with quarterback Tanner Gustavsen and an offense that appears ready to rebound after a lackluster 2016. Gustavsen has a potent receiver corps around him, led by all-conference speedster Connor Fohn. Carroll also expects big things out of former Helena High standouts Troy and Ryan Arntson, Ryan Walsh, tight end Eric Dawson and other green receivers.
Carroll’s defense will be powered by defensive tackle Beaugh Meyer and defensive end Alec Basterrechea. The back end will be anchored by returning starters at safety McBride Galt and Tucker Johnson. David Anderson and Reece Quade will be back at the linebacker slot, and joined by University of Montana transfer Alex Thomas.
Carroll has eight returning offensive starters and six on defense, and Dylan Torgerson, one of the top punters in the nation, returns on special teams.
The biggest question for Carroll will be how new starting corners fare after the graduation of Ryan Gregory and Vince DiGallonardo. The Saints feel confident about the prospects Drew Melton, Chandler Arbizzani and Isazah King, along with the addition of Ryan Beaulieu. But whoever ends up getting the start will be doing so for the first time against one of the best offenses in the Frontier.
The coaches picked Carroll to finish third in the Frontier this season. In Week 1, Carroll has as good of a chance as any to climb past those expectations.
“If you love small-college football, I don’t know where else you would rather be on that day,” Morrell said.