DILLON — For the first seven weeks of the 2018 football season, Montana Western’s ascension from an unranked team to the top of the Frontier Conference was arguably the best story in the league.
Powered by the arm and scampering ability of then redshirt-freshman quarterback Jon Jund, the tireless legs of running back Kyler Prante and the surefire tackling ability of now All-American linebacker Jason Ferris, the Bulldogs surged to a 6-1 record and No. 16 ranking.
Western’s lone loss in that span came in the form of a 54-51 triple-overtime road loss on Sept. 22 to Eastern Oregon. During their rise the Bulldogs toppled fourteenth-ranked Rocky Mountain College, earned a sweep over Carroll College and rallied past a Top 25 Montana Tech squad for consecutive victories over the arch-rival Orediggers.
But in an Oct. 27 rematch against the Battlin’ Bears, the magic ended and a Western team that was heading into November with playoff aspirations dropped the final three games of the season.
On Saturday Western held its second-to-last scrimmage of spring ball at Vigilante Stadium. For head coach Ryan Nourse, the overarching message of the past weeks has been simple — finish strong.
“We got tired,” Nourse said of last year’s disappointing finish. “For young players, the physical portion of it takes a huge mental toll and they were not ready to finish. We understand that was our weakness as we went through last year.”
Western’s roster boasted just 14 total seniors and five on offense last season. With little turnover, the Bulldogs return a host of players who are chomping at the bit to turn a new page.
“We’re hoping that increase in experience will hopefully help us this year,” Nourse said.
Challenging the incumbent
Jund seemingly willed Western to victory in a number of games last season including the Bulldogs’ first game against Rocky Mountain in which the Spring Creek, Nevada native scored on a two-yard keeper to give Western the go-ahead score with 30 seconds remaining.
A true dual-threat who finished fourth in the Frontier Conference with over 264 passing yard per game, Jund concluded the season with a team-high eight rushing touchdowns and trailed only Prante in yards on the ground with 347. In the passing game, he racked up 2510 yards through the air and 14 touchdowns while compiling a solid 118.48 quarterback ranking.
While Jund is the incumbent passer, he tossed a pair of short incompletions to open the scrimmage before redshirt-freshman Peyton Broenneke was rotated in.
Jund wasn’t the only player to show some early rust as most of the other passers struggled to find consistency.
“Our quarterbacks were okay but they were inaccurate today,” Nourse said. “Innaccurate in our deliveries and decision making. I don’t think we prepared ourselves to come out and get better today.
Payton Pinz, Sean Miller, and Jon Perrigot also got some reps in at quarterback. Miller, who passed for one touchdown and 74 yards in limited action last season, delivered the one home run play of the scrimmage, tossing a 70-yard touchdown to redshirt senior wide receiver Walker McKitrick who led Western last season with seven receiving touchdowns and 893 yards.
Nourse said that Jund and Miller are the front runners to get the nod come fall but Perrigot is also a promising candidate for starter.
In short, no final decision has been made.
“I’d say right now those two guys are in the running in battling who’s going to get the time in the fall,” Nourse said. “But I’m also pleased with Perrigot, he’s really started to figure things out and take ownership of the offense.
An All-American effort
On defense, the Bulldogs will return a bulldozer of a tackler in Jason Ferris who ended last season with a conference leading 125 tackles while being the only Frontier player to register over 100 tackles.
He also broke up 13 passes, hauled in three interceptions and notched a pair of sacks.
His defensive exploits earned him a slew of honors including being tabbed an AP NAIA All-American. The awards he received were meaningful but not enough to wipe out last season’s discouraging finish.
“It meant a lot, putting in the work the past four years and then getting those accolades,” Ferris said. “But I still wish we could have done a little more at the end of last season.”
Like Nourse, Ferris felt last year's youthful squad ultimately lost steam towards the end of the campaign.
“I think we were just really young and it really showed at the end of the season last year,” Ferris said. “But now we’ve got those guys that have that year under their belt. And we’ve got more depth this year than I think we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
Ferris saw limited time during Saturday’s scrimmage but still made his presence felt. On one play, Perrigot scrambled out of the pocket and found a crease where he found Ferris waiting, perfectly positioned to deliver a big hit.
Ferris cordially allowed him to give himself up with a slide.
While experience is what Western is hoping gets them over the hump next season, one underclassmen running back flashed some spark and possibly established himself as a future successor to Prante.
True freshman and Butte High graduate Sean Cooney delivered a pair of big plays on the scrimmage, ripping off a 20-yard gain and soon after turning a screen pass into 25 yards.
Prante also showed some of the grit that made him the Bulldogs' workhorse back last season, bursting up the middle for 40 yards with a pair of defenders draped around him.
With Western set to hold one last scrimmage on Saturday, the Bulldogs are looking to make the most of it.
"But that’s the great thing about spring," Nourse said. "It’s not a game but it’s training and preparing to be your best."