For the first time under head coach Ryan Nourse, Montana Western has entered the Frontier Conference’s bye week undefeated.
The Bulldogs have earned a 4-0 record, climbed to No. 16 in the NAIA Coaches’ Poll and technically sit atop the Frontier Conference, although just barely, leading undefeated No. 9 College of Idaho on point differential.
While the eventual Nov. 9 matchup against the Yotes is enticing, Western is hardly concerned about their trip to Caldwell, Ida.
Montana Tech, now 3-1 and ranked No. 23 themselves after a comprehensive 42-0 victory over MSU-Northern, await the Bulldogs next Saturday in the two schools’ 101st meeting.
With Frontier implications, pride and two confident teams, a barnburner appears to be on the cards at Bob Green Field on Oct. 12. Western will be looking to keep their undefeated season alive, and they’ll need all three phases of the game to ensure victory.
For a team that was initially known for its hard-nosed rushing offense under Nourse, Western’s identity has shifted dramatically over the past couple seasons. The rise of quarterback Jon Jund added explosiveness last season, but this year has been a different story.
Western leads the Frontier in passing offense in most categories, scoring 12 touchdowns through the air, averaging 324.5 yards a game and finding 9.1 yards per passing attempt. Running back Kylar Prante’s 5.3 yards per carry and two touchdowns are adding balance, but there isn’t any doubt that Jund is the focal point of the offense at this point.
However, Jund’s high-level performances aren’t without a blemish, most notably his five interceptions. Three of them were inconsequential in the 38-7 win over Rocky Mountain College, but Nourse has acknowledged that it is a sign of issues with consistency.
“We’re such an inconsistent unit,” said Nourse after Westerns’ 49-13 win over Eastern Oregon. “We turn the ball over in scoring positions, which is frustrating because it’s a thing we work on a lot on offense. I was really excited by the way the offense came out at half [against Eastern Oregon,] and we finally did what we should do.”
Western’s offense is currently electric, but Nourse would be the first to say they’ve been sloppy so far. Nine total turnovers through four games is not ideal, but easy to forget about when the offense is averaging 39 points a game.
Big Play Bulldogs
For defensive fans, Tech-Western ought to be an enticing game, at least on paper. Tech’s defense is ranked first in most categories, allowing just 13 points a game and 1097 yards all season.
The Bulldogs are not far behind, allowing 14.3 points a game, and have given up the same number of touchdowns as the Orediggers’ seven. But the big deal for Western’s defense this year is their nose for turnovers and the endzone.
Western’s nine turnovers have given the offense a platform to leap from, and linebacker Joe Caicedo’s three touchdowns in the past two games have the defense not only setting up the offense, but contributing on the scoresheet as well.
Much of the defense’s success is owed to Caicedo’s fellow linebacker, Jason Ferris, who is again on track for an all-conference — and perhaps all-American — year with 49 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. As long as the Bulldogs’ have Ferris and Caicedo orchestrating the defense, Western’s defense will be a stout challenge.
Block, Punt, Kick
DeJarrious Hutcherson’s blocked punt and touchdown return this past Saturday against EOU was the second special teams block of any kind for Western this season, but was a big play in a big moment that helped the Bulldogs break away.
Big plays from unexpected areas like special teams can be the difference between a close game and a comfortable win. The Bulldogs leading receiver, Trey Mounts, has shown big play capability with his 24 yards a catch but the Bulldogs have yet to see him turn that into points as Western’s lead returner.
In the meantime, kicker Mark Kharchenko will be looking to tidy up a conflicting start to the season. Kharchenko hasn’t missed an extra point, but he is currently sitting at .500 on field goals. Improving that will be important to Western becoming a complete team.