Sam Sparks

Rocky Mountain College running back Sam Sparks is tackled by Montana Tech's Zack Morris in Saturday's game against Montana Tech. The Battlin' Bears won the Frontier Conference title and will play at Morningside in the first round of the NAIA playoffs.

BILLINGS — Jason Petrino was still in his office early Saturday evening, clearing his desk of never-ending work and checking football scores from around the Frontier Conference.

His Rocky Mountain College football won the Frontier Conference title outright and earned a spot in the NAIA playoffs when Southern Oregon defeated Montana Western. It is the Battlin’ Bears first league title since 1999.

Petrino, his assistant coaches, and the players knew they were in the postseason but not sure about who they would be playing and where.

“I thought maybe Kansas or Iowa,” Petrino said. “As a coach, you either plan for your next game or if you lose, you start planning your recruiting.

“Now we’re planning for another game.”

Those questions were answered when the NAIA announced the No. 16 Battlin’ Bears (8-3) would get the large task of playing at No. 1-ranked Morningside (11-0) in Sioux City, Iowa, this coming Saturday at 11 a.m. Mountain time.

It is Rocky’s fourth playoff appearance and first since 2013. The Battlin’ Bears are 1-3 in the postseason. It is Morningside’s 15th time in the playoffs. The Mustangs are 19-14 in the postseason.

Rocky is the lone representative of the Frontier Conference.

Dickinson State (8-2), the North Star Athletic Association champions, plays at Northwestern (9-1) in Orange City, Iowa, in the first round. The Blue Hawks are ranked No. 15, while the Red Raiders are No. 5 in the national poll. Northwestern was the No. 1 at-large team selected.

The NAIA national championship game is Dec. 15 in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The Rocky players gathered in the auditorium erupted into a loud cheer when the NAIA playoffs pairings flashed on the screen.

“It’s great,” said senior quarterback Jacob Bakken. “That was one of our main goals this season, to win the Frontier Conference and get into the playoffs.”

Rocky is one of 11 teams to earn an automatic berth in the postseason because it was ranked in the Top 25 after winning the Frontier Conference title.

The Mustangs won their eighth consecutive Great Plains Athletic Conference championship last weekend.

The game is a rematch of the 2013 playoffs when Morningside defeated the Battlin’ Bears 40-21 in the first round.

The Battlin’ Bears overcame a .500 start, including a forfeit to Carroll in the opener to string together six straight wins before last Saturday’s loss to Montana Tech.

“It’s a new season,” said Bakken. “When we started 2-2, we knew we had to get going and kick it in. We’re just riding high right now. We’re averaging more than 40 points a game and our defense is playing lights out.

“We have to keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

Morningside ranks No. 1 in the nation in 10 different categories and among the top 10 nationally in 20 categories.

The Mustangs are averaging 56.4 points a game and 600 yards a game in total offense, including almost 400 passing.

Quarterback Trent Solsma has completed 75 percent of his passes for 4,049 yards and 55 touchdowns. His favorite target is Connor Niles who has 109 catches for 1,943 yards and 23 touchdowns. Reid Jurgenmeier has 36 catches, 10 for touchdowns.

Running back Arnijae Ponder has ran for 1,139 yards and 17 touchdowns. He is averaging 5.3 yards a carry.

Averaging more than 50 points and 600 yards in total offense a game, the Mustangs have scored 60 or more points five times, including 77 against Midland (Nebraska). Their closest game was a 42-34 win at Northwestern.

“Our first goal was to be Frontier Conference champions,” said Petrino, in his third season as head coach. “Now we made it in and we’ll do what we can to learn all about Morningside.”

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Email Joe Kusek at joe.kusek@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @GazSportsJoe

Sports writer at the Billings Gazette

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