BUTTE — Things are getting serious for Montana Western.
The No. 20 Bulldogs and No. 24 Rocky Mountain College will collide as Western travels to Herb Klindt Field for an enticing ranked matchup that has serious implications for both teams’ ambitions in the Frontier Conference.
When the Bulldogs traveled to Billings in 2018 to face the Bears, Western was sitting at 6-1 and had their eyes on the Frontier Conference title. Rocky was in similar position, both in terms of ambition and quality, and the Bears delivered a 43-14 loss to Western, the beginning of the Bulldogs’ three-game losing skid to end the season.
A win for either team will be a huge boost. In their opener, a 23-21 victory, the Bears beat Dickinson State (N.D) who were ranked ninth in the NAIA Preseason Coaches Poll. After a 53-34 win against MSU-Northern, Rocky was surprisingly clobbered by Carroll College 44-7 this past Saturday.
Meanwhile, Western is 2-0, including the 31-24 barn-burner over Carroll. The Saints’ recent win over Rocky may allude to success for the Bulldogs, but the Bears are still a talented team with the ability to beat top NAIA opponents.
It has all the makings of a fantastic game, so it’s time to break down the three keys to Saturday’s battle between the Bulldogs and the Bears.
Running with Rocky
The Bears rushing performance against Carroll this past Saturday would best be described as suboptimal. Rocky’s running backs averaged just 2.73 yards per carry, which is likely due to the Bears’ issues with their offensive line, which gave up seven sacks the week prior against MSU-Northern.
Western can relate, with the biggest issue in the Bulldogs’ first two victories being offensive line play. Football games are typically won on the line of scrimmage, and for Western, that starts with getting running back Kylar Prante going.
The redshirt junior has just 23 handoffs for 107 yards, which head coach Ryan Nourse credits to the game situations the Bulldogs have found themselves in during their first two games.
“We’re going to have to block up front better,” Nourse said. “It’s hard to run multiple run plays in a row. It’s a consistency issue, plus we have a good quarterback and receivers. If there’s guys getting open, we’re going to throw it to them.”
If Western’s rushing game gets off the ground, it could be danger for Rocky. While the Bears held their first two opponents to a 3.9 average on the ground, Carroll ran for 254 yards against them on Saturday. If Western improves their blocking, their chances of winning should drastically improve.
In similar fashion to the opener against Carroll, Western aren’t exactly sure who will be getting the start at QB for the Bears. Redshirt freshman Nathan Dick started against Dickinson State, but junior Drew Korf finished the game and started Rocky’s next two games.
However, Korf’s four-turnover performance against Carroll has potentially added a new turn in Rocky’s quarterback battle. So, what does Western gameplan for?
First, the Bulldogs will look to win the aforementioned battle at the line of scrimmage. Nourse and company will try to force the game into Korf or Dick’s hands. Western can give up big plays through the air, proven by the first two games, but that’s preferable compared to the alternative.
There’s a very real chance we will see both Dick and Korf take snaps on Saturday. Bears head coach Ricky Stutzreim will undoubtedly play the guy that gives them the best chance to win, but that does not appear to be an easy question to answer.
Expect Korf to get the start, despite a nightmare game against Carroll. His impressive performances against Northern and Dickinson have likely earned him another shot, but it still appears to be a wide-open battle at QB in Billings.
Trey Mounts up
Western has the fortune of having several weapons at Jund’s disposal. While Prante has failed to reach the endzone this season, receivers Nate Simkins, Walker McKitrick, Jamison Hermanson and Trey Mounts all scored in the opener against Carroll.
A wealth of targets is never a bad thing, but Jund and Western may have something electric on their hands with the redshirt sophomore Mounts. He followed up his score and 96 yards against Carroll with an impressive 160-yard, two-TD game against Northern.
Mounts is averaging a whopping 23.2 yards per catch, and of his 160 yards last week, at least 120 of them were after he caught the pass. Nourse recognized his impressive start and credited his behind-the-scenes effort.
“Mounts has had an incredible offseason,” Nourse said. “He takes a lot of pride in his craft and he’s really starting to come around. He did what he was supposed to do: make plays, and that’s what good players do.”
If Rocky wants to limit Jund, shutting down his favorite target will be a key goal. There may just be too many Bulldogs receivers to deal with, but dealing with Western’s most dynamic player is where the Bears need to start.