If there was one word to describe Montana Western’s 42-35 win over Montana Tech this past Saturday, that’s the word I would pick.
I think it’s a pretty safe to assume that most people at Vigilante Stadium on Saturday expected to see Montana Tech win its fifth game of the season.
But don’t include Bulldog head coach Ryan Nourse, his staff or his players on that list.
The Bulldogs arrived at the game – their sixth of the season – toting a 2-3 record on a trail that included narrow wins, big wins and some pretty tough defeats.
The Bulldogs didn’t score their second touchdown of the season until their third game, a loss to Eastern Oregon.
By comparison, Montana Tech scored its second touchdown before its season was 21 minutes old.
Persistence played a role in the Bulldogs’ Week 1 win over College of Idaho.
Their offense was struggling, and its only touchdown of that game came on an 11-yard pass from Bennett Gibson to Ryan Sullivan.
But the Bulldogs kept on pushing. While they weren’t able to get the ball into the end zone a second time, they got close. Close enough for freshman kicker Mark Kharchenko to boot field goals of 22, 29 and 24 yards.
That last one gave Western its 14th, 15th and 16th points, which were enough for a 16-14 victory.
The Bulldogs defense played a huge part in that win by holding COI to one first-half touchdown, and stopping the Yotes on a two-point conversion that would have tied the score in the fourth quarter.
Persistence was the key when the Bulldogs promised to keep fighting, despite being outscored, 90-14, after its first two games. Granted, their Week 2 loss came in the form of a 76-0 drubbing at the hand of Weber State but there are lesser teams that would have been demoralized after a loss like that; especially with an offense that was still in sputtering.
The Bulldogs shook off that loss to Weber State and put a scare into a nationally-ranked Eastern Oregon squad a week later.
The Mountaineers escaped with a 27-24 win by scoring the game’s final 15 points.
A 52-28 loss to an undefeated Southern Oregon squad followed but the Bulldogs ended their three-game losing streak with a 61-point outburst against MSU-Northern a week after that setback.
Western had scored a total of 68 points prior to its game against the Lights, and even that win came with a bit of an asterisk, given that MSU-Northern (1-5) has allowed an average of 47.6 points to Frontier Conference opponents this season.
Montana Tech scored a school-record 70 points against those same Lights.
Then came Saturday.
And that persistence.
The Bulldogs arrived at Vigilante Stadium looking like a team that wanted to win. The Orediggers took the field looking like a team that expected to win.
There is a difference.
But who could blame the Orediggers? Montana Tech averaged nearly 53 points per game in its first four outings.
Two of Tech’s four wins resulted in senior quarterback Quinn McQueary being selected as the NAIA National Player of the Week.
But expectations don’t win ball games, even when you are the dominant team in the conference.
The Orediggers put the Bulldogs in familiar territory – their heels – by jumping out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.
Game over, right?
Not even close. Western’s persistence came into play and the Bulldogs made a game of it.
“We were down quick,” Gibson said afterward. “We could have just fell down and went home but we kept fighting…”
The 14-point deficit turned into a 21-14 lead, and the game went back-and-forth from there.
Western used its persistence to overcome a 35-28 deficit late in the game, using a blocked punt to get the ball back after tying the score at 35. The Bulldogs scored again to win its biggest game in recent memory five plays later.
Western wasn’t the only team celebrating Saturday’s win. Moments after the game ended, the athletics department from Southern Oregon use Twitter to announce that the Raiders are now the only unbeaten team in the Frontier Conference.
Tech has plenty of time to regroup and still has a shot at its third straight conference title.
Western has all but lost its chance for that same title but the Bulldogs have proven that they have the power to mold the landscape in the conference with games against Southern Oregon, Eastern Oregon and Rocky Mountain still on the horizon.
They've also proved that persistence can take you a long way.