Rocky Mountain College may not be coming into Saturday’s matchup in Dillon undefeated, but the Battlin’ Bears pose the most genuine test of where the Montana Western Bulldogs truly stand in the Frontier Conference already in Week 3.
Rocky, No. 14 in the nation, holds a 2-1 overall record on paper, though its one loss comes on a forfeit to Carroll College for an eligibility infraction. Other than that, the Battlin’ Bears have leaned on a stellar defense that’s give up just 17 points through three games to be an early contender for the conference championship.
Meanwhile Western has gotten out to a 2-0 start in a season where many around the Frontier expected the Bulldogs to rest along the bottom of the conference.
The team in Dillon picked up a 16-10 win over Carroll in Week 1, and followed that up with a 55-3 drubbing of Montana State-Northern a week ago.
When Rocky and Northern met on Sept. 1, the Battlin’ Bears won 51-7. An equally dominant performance and a sign of how similar the ‘Dogs and the Bears might really be.
Make no mistake, Ryan Nourse has preached defense and special teams, and through two weeks his team has been defense and special teams.
And though both sidelines on Saturday will boast a slew of offensive talent, Rocky too has cut its teeth this season on the defensive side of the ball.
“I think there’s some similarities there, talent wise and matchup wise,” Nourse said this week. “… They have a couple of advantages I think on us, but I think we’ve got some advantages on them in some areas too.”
What are the advantages Nourse sees for each side?
“They have a little more experience than we do, so that’s one thing. But I think our kicking game is far superior to theirs. I think we’ll see some other matchups that will swing for them, and for us.”
Bulldogs kicker Mark Kharchenko is 2-for-2 this season, with two makes from 23 yards against Northern last week.
Through two weeks, Montana Western’s Jon Jund has yet to taste defeat, but it hasn’t been without hiccups.
Capable of ripping off huge chunks of yards with perfectly placed deep balls, the redshirt freshman is also human — and young.
In the Bulldogs’ blowout win over Northern, Jund went 13 of 25 throwing for 286 yards, two touchdowns and two picks. In the first half alone he had 231 of those yards, along with both touchdowns and both picks.
Jacob Bakken meanwhile is off to a promising senior season as Rocky Mountain College’s starting quarterback. Through three games, he’s 40 of 54 through the air for 607 yards, six TDs and two picks.
In one of the best performances from a quarterback in the conference this season, Bakken went 20 of 26 for 315 yards and four touchdowns and no picks against Northern.
The guys outside
To touch on the similarities note again, both Rocky and Western have a number of playmakers their respective quarterbacks like to get the ball out to. For the Battlin’ Bears, it’s Max Grey (175 yards, 2 TDs) and Lucas Overton (167 yards, 3TDs).
Western, meanwhile, has their No. 1 receiver from a year ago back in Melvin Walser, but don’t expect to see him catching any passes Saturday.
Early in the Bulldogs’ win over Northern, Walser went down with a shoulder sprain. Nourse said Walser would likely be back in a few weeks.
Still, even with Walser out for much of the game, Jund had no problem finding receivers. Nate Simkins had two catches but went for 92 yards. Walker McKitrick and Jamison Hermanson both caught three balls, and both scored touchdowns in the win.
Rocky has a stout passing game. But it looks like Western does, too.
No turnovers, Dawg D
Even though a win over Rocky could very well mean a national ranking for Western this time next week, Nourse isn’t willing to focus too much on what the Bears do. Just like against Carroll, and just like against Northern, he’s focusing on what his team is doing.
“Not turning the ball over, that’s number one,” he said of emphasis this week. “To continue to do what we do, and that’s relentless effort when we play … We’re not going to do anything different other than playing somebody different.
“They don’t have any player particularly you need to stop, or anything like that, it’s going to come down to takeaways and big plays. If we can make some big plays and get some takeaways and limit theirs, we’ll have a chance to win.”