DILLON — Looking back, Montana Western football coach Ryan Nourse figures his team's conference-opening loss to the College of Idaho — a stunning defeat on a last-second 25-yard Hail Mary — served as a necessary gut-punch that helped mold the Bulldogs into what they'd eventually become: Frontier Conference champions.
"I don't think I would change it," Nourse said this week. "I think it really helped create the belief that if we kept doing the things we need to do and being who we are, we could be a pretty darn good team."
That belief was clearly more than lip service as the Bulldogs — whose offense has been guided by a first-year starting quarterback and sparked by a true freshman receiver — went on to rip off eight straight wins and claim their first outright conference title since 1995.
The Bulldogs earned the No. 8 playoff seed and a second-round home playoff game during the NAIA Football Championship Series selection show on Nov. 12.
Western needed to wait for the bracket to be reseeded following four first-round games to learn who they'd be hosting. After the dust had settled, the Bulldogs got their answer — the Yotes are coming to Dillon.
Montana Western (9-1) is set to host a No. 11 College of Idaho squad (8-2) that could have claimed the conference crown in the final week of the regular season but was ultimately upset at home 31-16 by Southern Oregon. That left the door open for Western to earn the title outright if it defeated Eastern Oregon, which it did. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at Vigilante Stadium in what could very well be the final game at the historic stadium.
With plenty of new faces on its roster, Western came up just short against C of I in Caldwell on Sept. 9. But this squad has proved its mettle since then, winning out the rest of its schedule and putting up big numbers along the way, eventually earning Frontier Conference Offensive Player of the Year honors for redshirt sophomore quarterback Michael Palandri and head coach Ryan Nourse. The Bulldogs saw seven total players make the First Team All-Conference list.
In short, this team has evolved dramatically since Week 2.
"It was my second game ever playing college," said freshman receiver Eli Nourse, who currently leads the nation with 114.2 yards per game. "(Palandri's) second game, our starting running back's (Jake Humphrey) second game. Two starting O-linemen.
"I feel like we've gained so much more experience. We're probably more confident and prepared for this game then we were then."
This will be just the second time Western has hosted a playoff game and the first since 1994 — Nourse was a receiver for the Bulldogs that season — when the university was then known as Western Montana College. The Bulldogs hosted Glenville State College in the quarterfinals and beat the Pioneers 48-38.
It was an unforgettable first home playoff game for Western and now, with a team coming to town that handed the Bulldogs their lone loss this season, this team has a chance to write another memorable entry.
"I was pretty excited because of the loss we had against (C of I) in Week 2," said senior linebacker Kameron Rauser. "It's a big redemption game, so we're pretty excited that we get to play them guys again."