HELENA — When the Frontier Conference football coaches gathered at the Holiday Inn in Great Falls back in late July, the mentors put pen to paper on the annual preseason coaches poll, selecting the favorites to win the league title.
Southern Oregon and Rocky Mountain College topped that list, good selections with the Raiders 4-1 and Battlin’ Bears 3-2 in league play.
Where did the coaches miss? Montana Western, which was selected seventh, second-to-last for those counting. The Bulldogs entered the week tied with Southern Oregon at 4-1, ranked No. 19 in the country and closer to a postseason trip than bottom dweller.
One man not surprised by Western’s success this season? The first coach to face the Bulldogs — Carroll College’s Mike Van Diest.
“Preseason polls, what do coaches, what do we know about it?” asked Van Diest. “Everyone votes off of last year. Heck, someone voted us with a first-place vote. They just do it I think to do it. They send it out, you take a couple minutes and vote off last year’s record, so it’s not really indicative of what’s coming back. But when you have a quarterback like (Jon) Jund that steps in, and certainly he was highly recruited, we tried to recruit him and obviously they recruited him, they knew what they were getting. We knew how good he was. Ferris is the leader of that defense and coach (Ryan) Nourse does a great job down there.”
The Bulldogs have outscored every Frontier Conference team, less Rocky, which has played one more game, this season, while Western leads the league at 35.6 points per contest. They’re top-three in the conference in total yards (424.2), second in passing yards (292.4) and third in third-down conversion percentage (39.5 percent).
In short, Western has been rolling with Jund, the Spring Creek, Nevada product, directing the offense. Van Diest says the offensive success has been perhaps the Bulldogs’ biggest surprise.
“Defense has always been their staple, but now they have a quarterback (Jund), and last year (Bennett) Gibson had a great year. They have a great corps of receivers, very athletic, (Nate) Simkins is very good, they’re very physical up front on both sides of the football,” said Van Diest. “It’s not a surprise (how good Western has been), and when you get a couple wins under your belt you do get momentum and you start believing in what the coaches are saying.”
After opening the season defeating Van Diest’s Saints in Helena, Western added wins over MSU-Northern and nationally ranked Rocky, the victory that put them in the national spotlight, before dropping a triple-overtime affair against Eastern Oregon.
The Bulldogs found their rhythm again last weekend, defeating rival and top-25 Montana Tech, meaning Van Diest’s club rolls into Dillon on Saturday searching for ways to extinguish the scorching program.
“We have to run the football. When we played them here, we did some good things defensively, gave up a couple pass drives, that hurt us. The big third-down plays, that’s kind of our nemesis right now is getting off the field and getting people into 3rd-and-long,” said Van Diest. “I think we have to put pressure on the quarterback, he’s not a rookie anymore like he was the first game he played us in early September, but we have to help our secondary out.”
“Offensively, I don’t know if they have a weakness on their defense, I really don’t,” he added. “I think they’re very solid. We have to be able to do our assignments and alignments, but again, we have to be very physical.”
The Saints and Bulldogs kick off at 1 p.m. Saturday in Dillon.