BUTTE — Montana Western head football coach Ryan Nourse and Montana Tech head football coach Kyle Samson both agree that meetings between their programs are memorable because they more often than not see two of the top teams in the Frontier Conference squaring off.
That trend will continue on Saturday with the No. 11 Orediggers (4-1 overall, 3-0 in the Frontier Conference) set to host a Montana Western squad (3-1, 1-1) that finished just outside of the Top 25 in the last edition of the NAIA Coaches' Poll. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at Bob Green Field.
"It's always been like that up and down the I-15," said Nourse. "It's a fun game, we're close to each other. We're very distinctly different universities, but we have a lot of the same type of young men. Good coaches, really good players. It's usually really competitive football."
"It's two teams that are always at the top of the conference and have just been traditionally two of the top teams in the Frontier," said Samson. "I think that's a great way to explain it — two teams that are always pretty dang good and always have great battles."
Tech is coming off a 31-21 road win over Southern Oregon while Western is coming off a bye week. Both of these one-loss teams came up just short in their lone defeats. The Orediggers had a tying 2-point run against Carroll College halted a few feet short of the goal line. The Bulldogs saw The College of Idaho escape with a win off a last-second 25-yard touchdown pass from Andy Peters that was batted into the hands of Jon Schofield.
The teams split their series last year with Tech earning a 33-24 win in Dillon and Western holding on for a 27-21 victory in Butte that ended the Orediggers' chances at receiving an at-large playoff bid.
Saturday's matchup will be the only meeting between Tech and Western this season. And while a postseason berth isn't up for grabs, staying on playoff track will be as will be keeping pace with undefeated Carroll College (5-0, 3-0) and College of Idaho (4-1, 2-1).
Both quarterbacks — redshirt junior Blake Thelen for Montana Tech and redshirt sophomore Michael Palandri for Montana Western — are leading the conference with 12 touchdowns each.
Thelen's top target has been wideout Wyatt Alexander who has hauled in five touchdown receptions and is averaging over 120 receiving yards per game, the best YPG in the conference.
Palandri's preferred target has been true freshman Eli Nourse who has caught six touchdowns (a Frontier Conference best) and is averaging an even 120 yards per game. Palandri has also thrown three scoring passes to both Dylan Shipley and Jon Kirkley.
"It's been good. I've sat back and watched it for the last two years, so I can really feel the chemistry between all of them," said Palandri, who earned the starting job in fall camp, of the rapport he's developed with his top three receivers.
Both of these teams have proved they're capable of scoring in a hurry, and Saturday's contest will provide another opportunity for Tech and Western's offenses to showcase what they can do.
"We have a great set of guys, a great set of coaches getting us prepared every week," said Tech redshirt junior running back Landers Smith, who notched his first 100-yard game again SOU last week. "I think it's just the mentality that we get that comes down from the higher level from our coaches to play to the best of our ability. I think that's what sets us apart."
It'll come down to Tech and Western's defenses to stop a pair of offenses that are currently humming along. Tech linebackers Cole Wyant and Matt Whitcomb are currently second and fifth in the tackles in the conference with an overage of 9.6 and 7.4 tackles per game, respectively. And Western defensive lineman Bryer Monson is tied for second in the Frontier with three sacks.
"I think the most important thing is to stop the explosive plays," said Western junior defensive back Braden Swank. "But our defense has always been confident. We trust each other and we're ready."