#16 Dawgs play #1 Lindsey Wilson in national playoff game Sat.

M.P. Regan
Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The Boys Are Back in town. Or rather out of town, and out of the region, this weekend.

But they are back, in the NAIA playoffs, for the first time in nearly two decades.

The University of Montana Western football team will travel to Kentucky to take on top-ranked Lindsey Wilson College (10-0) in the first round of the NAIA playoffs on Saturday, Nov. 20, when kickoff is set for 2 p.m. MST.

“We are trying to figure out how the heck to get to Columbia, Kentucky,” laughed Montana Western Head Football Coach Ryan Nourse of the challenge of plotting out the more than 2000-mile journey for UMW’s large contingent of players and coaches to the home of Lindsey Wilson College, which is located south of Louisville in a small town about the size of Dillon.

“It’s kind of like when other teams try to figure out how to get to Dillon, Montana—there’s no easy way to get there,” said Nourse of a multi-leg journey that will require his team to employ various forms of transportation, with costs largely covered by the Frontier Conference and a sort of insurance pool NAIA teams pay into each season for postseason road trips that can involve thousands of miles of round-trip travel a long way from home to compete in playoff games against teams from other conferences.

The Bulldogs will be playing in their first postseason game since 2002, while Lindsey Wilson enters the playoffs as defending NAIA champions, having run the field in the spring 2021 playoffs to gain its first national title, following the cancellation of the fall 2020 season due to the pandemic.

The Bulldogs opted out of that spring season, choosing to go two years without playing competitive games.

The Lindsey Wilson Blue Raiders posted a 10-0 this season while competing in the Mid South Conference, which includes 22 teams in three divisions.

Montana Western plays in the Frontier Conference, which features just a single division of eight teams, several of which get forced to play one another multiple times in a season.

UMW outscored its 2021 conference opponents by an average of less than 10 points per game.

The Blue Raiders outscored their opponents 456-75 this season while shutting out four teams for an average margin of victory over 38 points per game.

“They are really fast and explosive on offense and really aggressive on defense. They can do so many things well,” said Nourse of a Blue Raiders team that gained the top spot in the NAIA preseason poll and remained perched there throughout their undefeated campaign.

Montana Western finished just outside the Top 25 in the NAIA preseason poll, and then ducked in and out of its perimeter during its up-and-down 2021 fall season in which the Dawgs went 8-3 overall and 7-3 in the Frontier Conference.

A dramatic win over Rocky Mountain College on the final day of the regular season (see story on

Head Coach Chris Stutzriem, whose team burned the proverbial barn to take a comefrom-behind win over Montana Western, 41-31, in Billings back in early October.

“It was a dog fight back and forth all game long,” said Stutzriem,.

The uncertainty enveloping the league’s tiebreaker system extended into Saturday’s game and compelled Nourse to pull an impromptu maneuver you are likely to never see another coach have to try in a game.

Western stopped Rocky’s opening drive of the first overtime when UMW defensive lineman Tanner Harrell forced a Rocky fumble pounced on by a pack of his fellow Dawgs.

Western then drove down within the 10-yard line on its first-overtime possession, inspiring Nourse to send out his special teams players for a chance at a game-winning field goal.

But then the Western head coach got forced to call a time out and adjust strategies, passing up a chance at a chip-shot field goal for the win by the ever reliable John Mears, and instead go for a difficult fourth-andgoal-to-go from the 7-yard line.

“Our Athletic Director told one of our athletic trainers, who told me and I called time out,” said Nourse of how he responded to news that a field goal would not give his team a big enough margin of victory over Rocky to earn it the conference title, under a set of tie-breaking metrics that remained unclear to both coaches even during the game.

“Everything was really, really murky. That is why I did it that way. I didn’t want to take any chances. If that was going to be the way it was. I don’t know when the decision was made. Crazy things happened. Thankfully, we were on the good side of crazy this time,” said Nourse, whose Bulldogs got excluded from the 16-team NAIA playoff field back when he was UMW’s Athletic Director in 2015. UMW finished the regular season that year second in the Frontier and ranked no. 15 in the NAIA, but saw a playoff spot it felt it had earned go instead to no. 18 Dickinson State and to its opponent in the first round of this year’s NAIA playoffs, Lindsey Wilson, which finished third in its own conference in 2015.

“Usually, we are on the dark side of crazy. People don’t tend to give the Bulldogs many breaks, so it was nice to get one this year,” said Nourse of his team’s first invitation t the NAIA playoffs since 2002.

“We should have three teams in the playoffs,” asserted Stutzriem of the highly competitive Frontier Conference, which tends to only place one team in the NAIA playoffs each season.

Nate Simkins may warrant a spot of his own in the 2021 NAIA playoffs, and certainly on its All-American squad that will be announced later this month.

The UMW senior wide receiver tied a school single-game scoring record he’d matched four times before by hauling in 3 TD catches on Saturday, when he also accumulated 159 receiving yards and 9 catches.

Those 9 catches carried the undersized, overachieving Simkins to atop the Bulldogs’ all-time receptions list, past former leader Craig Cornelius.

Earlier this season, Simkins surpassed Cornelius’s all-time TD reception record at UMW.

“You line up against Nate Simkins in the slot, and you just pray,” said UMW defensive back Reece Connolly of what it’s like to try to cover the former BCHS great in practice.

Simkins helped convert UMW prayers into what seemed a mini miracle to stem a rip-tide of Rocky momentum late in Saturday’s game, when he ad-libbed a pass route and adjusted on a pass thrown behind him on a fourth-down-and-5 at the Rocky 32, hauled it in and then raced down to the Bears’ 5-yard line.

“Nate shook his guy and Jon threw him open, and we drove down for another score. Jon took a big hit, because they brought everybody and the guy who drove their bus driver. That was awesome,” said Nourse, who then saw the remarkably resilient Jund climb off the turf and rumble into the right side of the end zone on the next play to give Western a 42-35 lead with under three minutes to play in regulation.

But then Dick field-marshaled the visitors on a TD drive that included a fourth-and-long conversion, and concluded with an 8-yard pass to Lucas Overton, who was tightly covered in the right side of the end zone by a Bulldog DB he managed to outjump by just enough on his way to the acrobatic, off-balance, game-tying TD grab to send the game to overtime.

Neither team managed to score in the first overtime, sending it into a second extra frame and prolonging what would turn out to be agony for Rocky and ecstasy for Western. A four-and-out burdened by a Harrell sack on Rocky’s second OT drive, followed by 1-yard TD run by Reese Neville to conclude Western’s ensuing drive finally brought down the backcover on the epic.

“Rocky is a great team. Nathan Dick is unreal, but we protect the Vig,” said Connolly, of the Bulldogs’ victory on their turf, Vigilante Field, where Western went undefeated this season.

“I love the way our team fought back. We just ended up on the short end of the stick this time,” said Stutzriem of this Rocky squad got picked to finish second to last in the league in the preseason poll of Frontier head coaches, but came within seconds of winning the league on the final day of the regular season that ended with a heartbreaking defeat for his Battlin’ Bears.

“I’ll tell you, that is a really good Rocky football team,” said Nourse of a team that surprised just about everyone this season.

“The future is bright for this program, but that doesn’t fix they are going through right now,” said Stutzriem moments after the conclusion of Saturday’s game, with most of his players in various states of despair and disbelief over seeing their chance at the conference title and an NAIA playoff appearance snatched away by Western.

The immediate future looks brighter than it has for Montana Western in decades, with the Bulldogs headed to the NAIA playoffs for the first time in 19 years on the cusp of its lateseason surge that carried the Bulldogs past Rocky and College of Idaho to the league title.

“We did what we were supposed to do—we won our last three games,” said Nourse.

“All three of those games were second games against somebody, and winning those is the hardest thing to do in football,” said Nourse of a stretch that culminated with the Dawgs wild win over Rocky on Saturday.

“We have played so many games like that when we had to fight back from a first-half deficit or we stopped doing things right in the second half and let someone back in and had to fight to win in end. We are just kind of used to it,” smiled Nourse.

“The character and makeup of our players is they do a really good job of going to battle. We have tough kids here with great competitive character. There is not any quit in them. So, I don’t get worried about it anymore. I know it’s always going to be stressful.”

The Bulldogs will face a new sort of stress on Saturday, Nov. 20, when they travel to Kentucky to take on Lindsey Wilson College to take on the no. 1 ranked team in the NAIA in the first round of the playoffs.