BILLINGS – We likely spent more time talking about Rocky Mountain College football than any other subject this fall, mainly because there was always so much to talk about.
It started on the final day of July, when defending league champion Southern Oregon was picked to run away with the conference again. But it was Rocky who was picked best of the rest.
“I’m happy for our players and coaching staff,” said head coach Jason Petrino. “They’ve put in the work and climbed up to where we want to be but ultimately it doesn’t really mean anything until the end.”
“I think we’re just trying to go out and actually prove ourselves and show that we deserved to be ranked second,” said wide receiver Casey Cole. “We haven’t proved anything yet. We haven’t even played a game.”
The proof was there three weeks later. Rocky shut out Carroll 19-0 in the season opener behind four sacks from Ryder Rice. He would end up leading the Frontier with 12.5 and was named a 2nd-team All-American. Then a week later, Rocky destroyed MSU Northern and everything was clicking.
Four days after that, the Bears dropped a bombshell. They were forfeiting the win over Carroll due to an academically ineligible player, which made what happened two weeks later an even bigger gut punch. Montana Western quarterback Jon Jund dove over the goalline for the game-winning score with 32 seconds left, and all of a sudden Rocky was 1-2 in conference.
They were staring at 1-3 the next week at the College of Idaho, down 13 with under 6:00 to play, and then a switch flipped. In four plays, Rocky went touchdown, onside kick recovery, 36-yard completion, and touchdown to grab the lead and escape with a 42-41 win. That gave them momentum heading into the bye week, preparing for the No. 2 team in the country, Southern Oregon, to come into Billings, and the Bears used every bit of it. Rocky never trailed in a 34-21 win.
“The whole week we were saying we get this one opportunity to play the No. 2 team,” said Rice. “We really capitalized on that time off, and made the most of it and made a victory today, so it feels great.”
The Bears were the hottest team in the country over the next month – four more wins, as they rose as high as No. 11 in the national polls – and clinched their first Frontier Conference title since 1999. They were also in line for their first home playoff game in 20 years.
All they had to do was beat Montana Tech at home, but a 31-27 loss erased all of Rocky’s hard work. Now instead of starting the postseason at home, they had to travel to No. 1 Morningside, and were sent packing with a 49-20 loss. But that wasn’t the final blow.
In a move seemingly no one saw coming, Petrino, who brought the Bears back to relevance in just three season, resigned to take the defensive coordinator job with Southern Illinois.
In response, Rocky introduced a familiar successor: Chris Stutzriem, who was Petrino’s offensive coordinator in his first two seasons, and Stutzriem offered some hope for fans looking to keep the train moving.
“I’d be pretty dumb if I changed a lot after winning a conference championship honestly,” Stutzriem said at his introductory press conference on Dec. 19. “Offensively they did a lot of the same things we did, terminology-wise, formation-wise. I’ve been here for every recruiting class with Jason, so I don’t see a lot changing.”
That’s likely why Stutzriem got the job. If ain’t broke, don’t fix it.