BILLINGS — The “rematch” portion of Rocky Mountain College’s football season has arrived.
In each of the next three games, Rocky will square off against teams it has already played, an unavoidable quirk of a 10-game, conference-only schedule. On Saturday, the Battlin’ Bears hit the road for a matchup against Frontier rival Montana Tech, which won the previous meeting 31-29 in Billings on Sept. 18.
“It’s tough,” third-year Rocky coach Chris Stutzriem said. “You’ve got three games where you’re playing the same people twice. You can’t invent a new offense or a new defense, but you try to make some tweaks, stick to what you’re doing and make sure your guys are ready.
“In the Frontier there are no easy battles. We’ve got to prepare the right way, travel the right way and make sure we’re good to go.”
The Bears are still riding high, especially coming off last week’s 39-34 victory at home over Carroll, a game in which Nate Dick threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to receiver Carter Garsjo for the go-ahead points with 24 seconds remaining.
Rocky (6-1) remains alone in first place in the Frontier standings as part of the program’s best start in 23 years. The Bears rose to No. 13 in this week’s NAIA Top 25 poll.
But it was Montana Tech that handed the Bears their only loss. The Orediggers built a 31-7 third-quarter lead and held on for the victory when Dick slipped in the backfield trying to convert a game-tying two-point conversion on a quarterback run with just four seconds left.
Dick tossed for 350 yards and three TDs in that game, but it wasn’t enough.
The win was the first at Tech for coach Kyle Samson, after the program opted out of the league’s abbreviated schedule last spring.
Yes, Rocky nearly pulled off a wild comeback, but nearly wasn’t good enough for Stutzriem or his players, who seek to be much better out of the gate this time around.
“The big thing on offense is starting earlier,” Stutzriem said. “And the big thing on defense is tackling better.”
The Bears will again have to deal with Orediggers QB Jet Campbell, who is coming off a four-touchdown performance in a win last week at Southern Oregon. Campbell accounted for three touchdowns (one passing, two rushing) in the first meeting against Rocky.
The Diggers seem much better than their record suggests — with a two-point loss to Eastern Oregon and a five-point defeat to the College of Idaho. Stutzriem agrees.
“I think they’re better. I think they’re a good football team. A couple plays here and there and they’re at the top of the conference,” Stutzriem said. “We need to make sure we understand that if we don’t play good football we’ll have our hands full and our work cut out for us.”
That’s on top of the challenge of playing on the road in difficult surroundings at Tech’s Alumni Coliseum.
Rocky, though, has won its last two road games against the Orediggers.
“They’re physical, they’re tough, they’re smart,” Stutzriem said. “And going to Butte, it’s a hostile environment. They’ve got a great fan base and a loyal fan base, and great tailgating that we’ve got to walk right through to get to the field. But it’s fun. That’s how you want it.”
The Bears continue to lead the pack in the chase for the Frontier title, which is rare air for a program that has laid claim to just one league championship (2018) this century. But if they’re feeling any pressure, you wouldn’t know it by their approach.
Stutzriem said the mindset remains the same.
“I still think we have that underdog mentality and I’m OK with that. I think our team’s OK with that,” he said. “Whether it’s player to player or team to team, I think people are still kind of counting us as the underdog.
“We know if we play for each other and play our game, we’re good.”