BUTTE -- When asked about the thrilling manner that Montana Western had beaten Carroll College 31-24 in the Bulldogs’ home opener, head coach Ryan Nourse was understandably less talkative and joyous than the fans at Vigilante Field.
“It was a little too thrilling for my liking,” Nourse said. “It wasn’t pretty.”
Nourse also had praise for his team for sticking through a tough game, but the point remained.
While redshirt sophomore quarterback Jon Jund’s last-minute, fourth-down touchdown pass to receiver Walker McKitrick was the game’s major talking point, whether the Bulldogs should have even been in that situation is up for debate.
No. 25 Western now travels for the first time in 2019, heading to Havre to battle Montana State-Northern (1-1) for a game that the Bulldogs will expect to win.
However, if Nourse’s team falters against the Lights in the same manner that it did against the Saints, Western could be facing an early setback in their goal of winning the Frontier Conference title.
Here are some important things to consider ahead of Saturday’s 1 p.m. matchup at Blue Pony Stadium.
First quarter contest
Carroll took its opening drive for a touchdown, mostly thanks to a lapse in focus on a 63-yard screen to Saints’ running back Major Ali. This affected the game in several ways, primarily being the shift in the Bulldogs’ offense.
Despite Western running back Kylar Prante taking his first touch for a 10-yard gain, Carroll’s opening score saw the Bulldogs shift to Jund. His 356-yard, four-TD performance ended up securing a victory, but Prante had just 13 carries for 61 yards, which is considerably less than ideal for a balanced offense like Nourse wants.
Jund having more rushing attempts (14) than Prante is another symptom of an inefficient day for the Bulldogs. While Jund is certainly good enough to win games for Western, avoiding an early deficit and establishing the running game through the redshirt junior earlier will be important.
If Northern will have a chance at winning, they’ll also be looking to establish a lead in the first quarter. Disrupting the Bulldogs offense and forcing the game into Jund’s hands is likely the Lights’ best chance.
Last week, Northern was able to end the first quarter against preseason No. 16 Rocky Mountain College 13-13 before eventually falling to a 34-53 defeat, so the Lights have shown the ability to hang early.
Mixed bag Medina
Northern’s freshman quarterback Brendan Medina has had an eventful start to his college career. The Lights’ QB has thrown for 510 yards and five touchdowns in his two starts for the Lights. He has also thrown five interceptions.
Granted, these numbers are inflated after Northern had to play from behind at Rocky last week, but the story the stats tell so far is that Medina can find the end zone, as well as the hands of opposing defenders.
This matchup comes after the Western defense allowed Carroll QB Devan Bridgewater to convert 10 third downs, which played a major factor in the Saints’ ability to keep it close. Nourse immediately recognized the need for improvement.
“We’ve got a lot to do on defense,” Nourse said. “We have six or so guys that haven’t played college football in a long time, and we have things to clean up in every area. But they have great pride and will take care of business.”
The Northern QB’s performance will matter greatly to whether the Lights can put pressure on Western. After four INTs and TDs against Rocky, Medina is certainly one of the biggest question marks for the 49th matchup between Western and Northern.
Western’s away woes
Since Nourse’s second season in charge, when the Bulldogs mustered a 4-1 record on the road, the Bulldogs are 5-11. Away games in the Frontier are always difficult, but Western’s struggles are especially notable.
Coming back from Havre with an early away could possibly help the Bulldogs get over that hump, which will be necessary for Western if it wants to be in contention for the conference title later this season.
Granted, the Bulldogs have not lost at Northern since 2012, and have dominated the past two contests by a combined score of 103-20. Even with that context, Western will need to execute at a better level than in Week 1 to guarantee victory against the Lights.