By Bill Foley
Braden Feisthamel played six-man football in the tiny town of Savage, Montana, which is about halfway between Glendive and Sidney.
That is the answer to the question many Montana Tech football fans were asking Saturday as the No. 6 Orediggers pulled out a closer-than-expected 28-21 win over No. 14 Dickinson State in the first round of the NAIA playoffs on the Bog Green Field. Stats
Feisthamel, a redshirt freshman whom teammates call “Feisty,” stepped in for injured running back Nolan Saraceni and ran for 128 yards to help lead the Orediggers into next week’s quarterfinals, where the Orediggers will likely play on the road.
During and after the game, Digger fans had to be asking “where did that guy come from?”
“Braden is an incredible young man,” Montana Tech coach Chuck Morrell said. “A lot of people probably don’t know a lot about him. He played six-man football in Savage, Montana. This program has got a great history with running backs, and I’m just really proud of the way he and Zach Winfield stepped up and filled that void with Nolan not being able to roll today.”
Saraceni missed the game because a bruised knee he suffered late in last week’s win at Southern Oregon has not healed quickly enough. The team realized late in the week that Saraceni was a no go.
So Winfield got the start, but Feisthamel carried most of the load filling in for the superstar running back.
If the youngster was nervous about playing the big role, he didn’t show it.
“It was really the night before when the nerves hit,” said Feisthamel, who was named the Offensive Player of the Game. “As soon I stepped on the field it all went away.”
Feisthamel did his damage on 22 carries. He broke one cutback run for 31 yards. On other runs, he carried defenders for more yardage.
“Our line is phenomenal,” Feisthamel said. “I pretty much owe it to them for how I run. They were making holes for me.”
Junior quarterback Quinn McQueary had a sore hand in three touchdowns to help the Orediggers win their 10th straight game. That is a school record.
“That’s the first time we did that in the history of Montana Tech,” Feisthamel said. “That’s pretty sweet.”
McQueary played through a couple of injuries — one on a play where Dickinson was flagged for roughing the passer and one when he hit his hand on lineman’s helmet — to pass for 241 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for a score.
“He’s mentally strong,” Morrell said. “He’s our leader, and there’s no quit in him.”
Still, the Orediggers needed a couple of stops by their defense to pull out the victory.
“We had a roller coaster there for a little bit,” said Tech sophomore linebacker Nic Amestoy, who was named the Defensive Player the Game after a 12-tackle performance. “It was going up and down. To be able to finish it was awesome.”
The Orediggers never trailed, but the pucker factor at Alumni Coliseum on the cool, cloudy day was definitely high when the Blue Hawks picked up some momentum in the second half.
Dickinson won the coin toss — which was tossed by former University of Montana coach Mick Dennehy — and deferred.
So Tech took the opening kickoff, and the Orediggers marched 79 yards on 12 plays for a touchdown on the opening drive.
McQueary hit senior tight end Andrew Loudenback for a 3-yard score on a shuffle pass.
The Tech defense forced a Dickinson three and out, the Orediggers made it 14-0 with 5 minutes, 12 second left in the first quarter when McQueary jumped into the end zone for a 7-yard TD run.
Tech made it 21-0 with 5:38 left in the second quarter. One play after McQueary slowly left the field following a late hit, senior Zach Bunney scored on a 13-yard run from the Wildcat formation.
Dickinson, though, wasn’t about to roll over and be blown out like the Blue Hawks were in last year’s 44-10 playoff loss in Butte.
“We knew they were going to come out and bring a fight,” Amestoy said. “It’s playoff football.”
Running back Jed Fike came out of the backfield to get deep for a 43-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Kaler Ray with 1:13 left in the second.
With 5:59 left in the third, Fike busted up the middle on third and one for a 67-yard touchdown to pull the Blue Hawks to within 21-14.
That score came five plays after the Orediggers failed on fourth and goal from the 4.
Tech’s drive — and perhaps the play— of the season followed that Fike touchdown.
On fourth and 7, senior receiver Mitchell Keeton made a circus catch in the back of the end zone for a 23-yard touchdown from McQueary.
“That was insane,” Amestoy said of the catch.
“That was a phenomenal catch,” Feisthamel added. “That definitely changed the momentum of the game.”
That acrobatic play capped an 85-yard, 12-play drive. The drive also included a leaping 13-yard reception on the sideline on third and 7 from the Tech 29.
One play before the score, Keeton caught a 15-yard pass over the middle on third and 22 from the Dickinson 38.
Dickinson again answered. Ray busted through the middle on a keeper for a 54-yard touchdown run on the fifth play of the fourth quarter.
The scoring play came on fourth and 1.
McQueary bonked his hand on a defender’s helmet the following series, and the pressure switched the Oredigger defense.
Tech’s defense stopped two drives, but they were nail-biting stops.
Ray threw incomplete — thanks to pressure from Connor Wines and company — on third and 7 from the Tech 46 to stop one drive with 7:33 left.
“Big shout out to Connor Wines,” Amestoy said. “He came up with that big third-down stop.”
One play before that, cornerback Anthony Nelson made what might have been the play of the day for the Oredigger defense. The senior knocked the ball out of the hands of Dickinson receiver Jamion Lindsey on a deep pass.
With runs from Feisthamel, Winfield and Bunney, the Orediggers picked up two first downs before putting the defense back on the field.
The Orediggers came up with big plays on that last possession. So did the Blue Hawks.
Drew Schleeman pressured Ray on third and 5 from the Dickinson 44. Ray got the ball off, but he was called for intentional grounding, setting up fourth and 16 from the 33.
Ray then hit Seth Ewoniuk for a big gain on that play. Oredigger safety Gunner Kayser came in to lay a huge hit to clearly stop Ewoniuk a full yard short of the first-down marker.
But a bad spot — that was confirmed repeatedly on DiggerVision — gave the Blue Hawks a first down on the Dickinson 49 with 1:44 left.
It didn’t matter, though. The Orediggers turned up the heat to hit Ray on four straight incompletions to end the game.
“We were a little bit out of sync at times today,” Morrell said. “I’m just really proud of our guys for putting together a real gutty performance and pulling it out in the fourth quarter.”
The game was admittedly closer than the Frontier Conference champion Orediggers were expecting from the North Star Athletic Association champion Blue Hawks, but nobody was complaining after the win.
“In playoff football you never know what to expect. They’re in the playoffs for a reason,” Amestoy said. “I’m just glad we came out on top. One point or 30, it doesn’t matter because we won.”
The Orediggers will find out their second-round opponent and destination on Sunday. Morrell said his team will have no problem playing on the road.
“We’re going to be on the road,” the coach said. “We spent three out of the last four weeks prior to this week on the road, so that’s not a foreign entity for us at all. We travel well and we play well on the road, so we’re just excited to be moving on to the second round.”