BILLINGS — It was Nov. 16, 2019 the last time Rocky Mountain College played a football game. Quarterback Drew Korf threw two touchdown passes and the defense forced five turnovers in a 38-23 road win at Montana Tech.
It was the final game of Chris Stutzriem’s first season as Rocky’s head coach, and he couldn’t have asked for a better way to enter the offseason.
One problem: He never imagined the offseason would last 69 weeks. Four months later, COVID-19 took hold and eventually put a halt to the Frontier Conference’s 2020 fall football campaign before it even began.
“It’s been the longest offseason of my life,” Stutzriem said.
The wait will end Saturday as the Frontier Conference’s condensed four-game spring football schedule kicks off. The Battlin’ Bears will come out of hibernation when they host Carroll College at Herb Klindt Field at 1 p.m.
The league recently announced that its no-spectator policy — instituted as part of its return-to-play plan during the pandemic — would remain in effect for the duration of the academic year, which means the stadium will be empty on Saturday.
But Stutzriem said that won’t take away from the game-day buzz.
“I think it’s going to be a great day. It will be fun,” Stutzriem said. “We’re ready to play somebody else, and the kids deserve it. They’ve worked their butts off and they’ve been through a lot. Now they just get to go play some football.”
With no opponents on the schedule over the course of the past year and a half, Stutzriem, his coaching staff and Rocky’s players have spent much that time honing in on strength and conditioning, individual skills and drills, offensive and defensive installation and, of course, recruiting.
But in the past month the Bears were able to conduct a more traditional preseason camp to get ready for their spring schedule, abbreviated though it might be. That allowed for more game-like preparation.
“The stuff we needed was a lot of team stuff,” Stutzriem said. “We felt like we were getting a lot of individual work and group work, but we needed live team reps and to go fast and to hit each other and tackle. I think our guys have done a really good job with that.
“We wanted to focus on ourselves for a lot of the offseason camp or preseason camp — if you want to call it that — and try to find out who our guys were. At the end of the day through this whole thing you just have to make sure your 1s through your 4s are prepared. Now it’s just matter of putting it into action and letting our players go play fast.”
Stutzriem did not publicly announce a starting quarterback for the game against Carroll, but did say that as many as three signal callers — Nate Dick, Korf and Matt Asplund — are likely to get reps this spring. Veterans Dick and Korf are at the top of the depth chart.
That will be the case among the entire team, Stutzriem said, as the cultivation of depth has been another key component to Rocky’s preparation. Stutzriem has said that Rocky’s roster is overflowing with 116 players.
“We’ve got to have at least three guys ready at each position. That’s what I’ve told the coaches,” he said. “We’re just preparing every kid that we think is ready to play and making sure we’re doing the best we can with what we have.”
Among Rocky’s top returners are senior receiver Lucas Overton, who led the Frontier with 67 catches in 2019, and senior linebacker Dallas Mack, who hasn’t played a game since 2018 after suffering a knee injury.
Carroll is coached by Troy Purcell, but the Saints have a new defensive coordinator in Wes Nurse, and Stutzriem expects to see different looks than in the past. But other things, Stutzriem said, won’t change.
“Every time I’ve played Carroll as a coach, they’ve always lined up extremely well, they know their assignments, they tackle really well and they play really hard,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who’s been the defensive coordinator or the head coach, that’s just the culture they have. They’re going to run the ball well, they’ve always done that and lived by that.
“Those are the things Carroll teams always do.”
After Saturday, Rocky is scheduled to play at the College of Idaho on March 20, will host Eastern Oregon on March 27, and face Montana State-Northern on the road on April 3.
The NAIA playoffs are scheduled to begin April 17, with the championship game set for May 10 in Grambling, Louisiana.