BUTTE – It’s been an up-and-down year for the Montana Tech football team.
The season began with high expectations and the team talking about national championships. Now, with just one week left in the regular season, the ‘Diggers biggest goal is sending out its 14 seniors with a win over fifth-ranked Southern Oregon.
“I’m very appreciate of everything they’ve done for us,” Tech head coach Chuck Morrell said. “They’ve been the foundation and rock we’ve built this program on.”
The Orediggers have gone 27-16 over the past four seasons, including a 26-7 mark over the past three.
It’s a group that’s won a lot of games, taken two conference titles and made the NAIA playoffs twice.
They won’t be easy to replace.
“The season really flies by. You start camp in August, grind away at it and one day you wake up and it’s almost the end of the season,” Morrell said. “We’re looking to end the season great. The guys are excited, it’s senior day. We’ll have a lot of people who have been here for three, four, five years that will be playing their last game.”
Tech’s loses talent across the board, but one of biggest – literally – holes to fill will be along the offensive line. It loses two starters to graduation in Jack Hape and Jalen Whitley out of a positional group that has taken huge steps forward this season.
The line has grown close and it’s translated into on-field success. Tech gave up 21 sacks in 2016 and 22.5 in 2015. The Orediggers have allowed just 15 sacks this season (second-fewest in the conference) and they’ve been kept senior quarterback Quinn McQueary upright.
“I feel that it all came together in summer training,” said Whitley, who has 33 career starts along the line. “We made it a point to train together, hang out with each other and we really started to form that bond and that chemistry. It was that offseason training where we really started to grow together.”
They’ll need to be at their best this weekend. Southern Oregon comes into the game with 46 sacks on the season – the most in the conference – and will be after Tech from the beginning.
Morrell, however, is confident in his line.
“They’re super consistent on a week-to-week basis and so invested in what we do,” Morrell said. “It’s taken a lot of time to build that level of comradery, but those guys are bought in.”
While the ‘Diggers do lose two critical pieces for the group, they’ll be able to bring back three starters in juniors Trevor Hopf and Kellen Davis as well as redshirt freshman Nate Younk.
They’ll be asked to do a lot, but they seem more than up for the challenge.
“We’re just a family and it makes everyone better,” Davis said. “We try to enjoy ourselves out here, get better and do our job. As long as we do that we’ll continue to find success.”
In addition to going up against a tough defensive front, it’s still not entirely clear who the signal-caller will be.
McQueary did not play in a loss to College of Idaho last week and is questionable for Saturday’s game. In his place, redshirt freshman Davan Norris stepped up and threw for 357 yards and four touchdowns on 28-of-44 passing. The line was able to keep him upright for the most part and he delivered.
Some of his success, however, came from how well another unit that will take a major hit to graduation has performed this season – the wide receivers.
“[Norris] had a nice, consistent day and I was really pleased with our receivers,” Morrell said. “They’re great targets to get out and throw too. They were a huge asset to him and have been all year.”
Tech loses three of its top four receivers next season and will have some major holes to fill. Sean Sullivan, Chris Kelly and Chris Lachance have combined for 119 catches, 1492 yards, and 13 touchdowns.
Each of those marks comes out to about half of the team’s total production and will be tough to lose next season.
Right now, however, they’ll likely have to one more great performance to knock off a top-five team. They’re confident and ready to pull the upset.
“It’s really just a trust thing,” Kelly said. “We all trust Davan. He was here over the summer and proved that he can play and it really helped us out. We don’t have to worry about him, we just have to do our jobs.”