BUTTE — The cracks to Montana Tech’s invincibility began to appear weeks ago.
Either no one noticed, or no one wanted to believe it.
It’s was easy to overlook some of those early-season fractures because the Orediggers kept on winning. A closer look, however, revealed some telling red flags.
The Orediggers bounced out to the start of their season with relative ease, scoring a combined 115 points in their first two games which turned out to be victories over Carroll College and MSU-Northern, respectively.
But the story wasn’t quite the same on the defensive side of the ball.
Montana Tech’s defense gave up 28 points to Carroll College in its season-opening win, a fact that was easy to overlook, given the fact that it was Week 1 and teams don’t tend to play their best on opening day.
But do you know when Montana Tech last gave up 28 points to an opponent? Try two seasons ago.
The Orediggers held their opponents to 27 points or less in all of their 12 games last season. Even the two teams that beat them last season, Carroll College and Reinhardt University (Georgia) were each held below 28 points.
The last time, prior to this season, in which an opponent scored more than 28 points against a Montana Tech football team was on Oct. 10, 2015. Rocky Mountain College scored 33 points in that game and still came out on the short end of a 38-33 loss to Tech.
Montana Tech’s defense led the Frontier Conference in pass defense that season and was the only defensive unit to hold teams to less than 200 air yards per game. Tech defenders also led the way in total defense, giving up a paltry 323 yards per game while playing in a high-scoring conference.
The Orediggers didn’t let up last season either, holding opponents to a conference-best 19.2 points per game.
Tech fans might have hoped that the 28 points given up to Carroll College at the beginning of the current season was an anomaly but that hasn’t been the case. The Orediggers also allowed 28 points to Rocky Mountain College (twice) and Montana Western. Two of those three games resulted in Montana Tech losses.
Opposing coaches have been able to find holes in Tech’s defense. Defensive coordinators from around the league have adjusted to the Orediggers’ highly-touted secondary. Mismatches are being created on drawing boards from campuses in Montana to Oregon to Idaho and the once mighty Orediggers are struggling to make the necessary adjustments.
The telltale signs of Montana Tech’s vulnerability came during the fourth quarter of the Orediggers’ 34-28 win over Rocky Mountain College on Sept. 16.
The Orediggers led by a 34-7 margin in that contest, only to watch the Battlin’ Bears scratch their way back with three unanswered fourth-quarter touchdowns. But they weren’t enough. The damage had been done.
Some attributed Rocky’s late run as coming during garbage time, so that the six-point win was nothing to worry about. I didn’t buy it.
The Bears used those final 15 minutes to build confidence against a team they knew they would be facing again. The Bears used those three scoring drives to realize that they can be successful against the two-time defending conference champs.
Rocky left the field that day with its first conference loss of the season. The Bears walked away from that loss knowing that in their eyes the Orediggers were definitely beatable. It was just a matter of waiting for their rematch, which came this past Saturday at Alumni Coliseum.
And Rocky was right.
Despite taking themselves out of the conference-championship picture with a home-loss to Carroll College one week earlier, the Bears did what they set out to do against the Orediggers. They won the game, 30-27, on a last-second field goal.
In doing so, Rocky essentially took the Frontier Conference Championship trophy out of Tech’s HPER Complex and handed it to Southern Oregon.
Tech now trails SOU by two games with two games to play. The Orediggers need a miracle that they’re not likely to get.
SOU will travel to battered and bruised MSU-Northern on Saturday, where a victory will assure the Raiders of the conference championship and end the Orediggers’ title run after two seasons.
The Orediggers can still hope for a berth in the NAIA playoffs but that will now depend on how far they fall in the Top 25 rankings, which come out on Monday.
Montana Tech did a good job of playing through the 2016 season with a target on its back.
This year, that target seemed to get bigger and heavier. It was heavy enough that cracks started to form way too early in the season.