MILES CITY — At face value, Montana’s 13-5 series lead over North Dakota in the Knights of Columbus Badlands Bowl is a record of domination.
But take a closer look. Montana won nine of the first 11 games of this annual all-star football clash, including eight in a row from 1997-2004 to establish a trend of supremacy. Since 2005, though, it’s been a different story.
In that stretch Montana has won four of seven contests but has lost three straight times on North Dakota turf. Clearly, the rivalry has been much more competitive of late.
If Montana is to end its road losing streak in the 19th version of the Badlands Bowl on Saturday in Dickinson, N.D., coach Terry Thomas says his team must get the upper hand in the most primordial facet of the game.
“We’ve got to play well up front on defense,” said Thomas, who has coached Dillon to five state football titles since 2000, including one last fall. “We can’t let them push us around up front. And that’s really big.
“If you’ve got a team that’s going to run the ball at you a little bit, and if they get first downs and get field position and start to have some time of possession, all of the sudden it gets really hard to get the ball out of their hands and beat them. That’s kind of where it lies. For us, if our offensive line can give our quarterbacks time they’ll find receivers. And if they can give some creases to our backs we’ll be able to make some things happen.”
Thomas said he and his coaching staff — which consists of Dillon’s Rick Nordahl, Colstrip’s Mark Ator, Billings Senior’s Mark Sulser, Fairfield’s Les Meyer and Fairview’s Kevin Clausen — expect North Dakota to employ a heavy run game. That puts the onus on a defensive front that includes Bo Harris of Fairfield, Jordan Brusio of Billings West, Kyle Boos of Malta and the like.
Being fast to the football is one component of stopping the run, and Thomas thinks Montana’s defense has the horses.
“It seems like as a unit we really can run,” Thomas said. “It starts with our linebacking corps. It seems like they can cover a lot of ground, and they also have some size. Up front the kids are active. We’ve put in a number of different fronts and blitzes, and they’ve seemed to pick it up. They’re hard to block in our drills.
“If we’re going to have a chance to win we have to stop the run. And defensively I think we can do it. I think between the different types of fronts we have and our athletic ability, if we can keep them from popping a big one we’ll be fine.”
The Badlands Bowl kicks off Saturday at 6 p.m. at the Badlands Activities Center in Dickinson.
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The Montana All-Stars’ last victory in Dickinson came in 2003, a 23-17 win. But they lost their next three tries in the Peace Garden State while giving up an average of 41 points.
The North Dakota All-Stars are coached this year by Rod Oksendahl, the head coach at Shanley High School in Fargo. Oksendahl last served as a head coach in the Badlands Bowl in 2005 when North Dakota won going away, 53-29.
This year’s North Dakota squad is nothing if not big up front, anchored by 6-foot-7, 290-pounder Jack Plankers (Kindred) and 6-7, 240-pounder Landon Lechler (Beach). Both are headed to play for defending FCS national champion North Dakota State in the fall.
Oksendahl told The Dickinson Press earlier this week that his offensive line is “ahead of the game.” That’s good news for North Dakota, which also must protect quarterback Devin Coyle of Mandan, a recruit of the University of North Dakota and the state’s Class 3A player of the year.
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They would have been hard pressed to pair two better quarterbacks together than Billings West’s Brady Gustafson and Dillon’s J.T. Linder. Perhaps not since Andrew Selle and Mark Desin teamed up for the Montana All-Stars in 2006 has there been a more decorated duo.
That’s probably why Thomas was loath to name a starter even by mid-week. Frankly, both guys have the goods.
“I didn’t have a lot of chances to talk to Brady in high school, but it’s been a lot of fun,” Linder said. “We’re rooming together, and I’m learning things from him and I think he’s learning things from me. He’s such a great competitor. So it’s pretty cool.”
The 6-foot-7, 210-pound Gustafson finished his prep career as West’s all-time leading passer with 6,202 yards. He is the latest in a line of Golden Bear quarterbacks to sign with the Montana Grizzlies, following the likes of Selle and John Edwards.
Linder, who’s headed to Carroll College in the fall, had an outstanding senior season to lead Dillon to the Class A state championship. Linder completed nearly 69 percent of his passes for 2,378 yards, 22 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He also rushed for 18 scores.
Incidentally (and not surprisingly) Thomas said Gustafson and Linder will split time against North Dakota, with each playing about two quarters at the helm of a shotgun-heavy offense.
“J.T. can really do it all,” Gustafson said. “He has a great arm but has great legs too. When he drops back and isn’t seeing everything right he can take off and really hurt you on the ground. It’s great having him here.”
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With 13 sacks, six forced fumbles and 11 tackles for loss last fall, Helena Capital’s Caleb Kidder cemented his reputation as a monster at defensive end. The people at Gatorade agreed, and awarded Kidder the state’s football player of the year award for 2011.
Still, the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Kidder will probably figure more prominently as an offensive lineman for the Badlands Bowl, though he’s likely to see a few reps on defense.
“The thing about Caleb is that he’s such a great athlete that he could play almost every position along the (offensive) front, as well as even probably tight end,” Thomas said. “And then defensively he can play all along the line, and if he really wanted to he might even be able to play some middle linebacker.
“When you add such size to his athletic ability to move laterally, it’s really impressive. We will use him some at defensive end, but right now he’s certainly one of the offensive linemen we plan on playing.”
Kidder, a University of Montana recruit who helped Capital win the Class AA state title last fall, isn’t conflicted with the coaches’ plan.
“I love defense, but as long as I’m out there playing football and as long as I can help my team against North Dakota, I’m happy,” Kidder said. “That’s all that matters.”
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What’s it like to transition from the 8-man game to full-blown, 11-on-11 football?
“Weird,” said Chinook standout Ben Stroh, who will play his first-ever 11-man game Saturday in the Badlands Bowl. He is the only player on the Montana roster to come from a program that does not play 11-on-11.
But Stroh is no stranger to competition. The four-time state wrestling champion and the national record holder for consecutive pins should adjust without much scrutiny.
“It’s been fun to try it,” said Stroh, who will play linebacker. “Obviously these guys know what they’re doing, so they’ve been a good to help me. They’ve been really good. So it’s coming along.
“It seems like there’s more individual responsibilities in 8-man. You’ve got to fly around the field a little bit more, where here you can stay home and play your position. But it’s different. It seems like there’s a lot of guys on the field that you happen to run into during the play, but it’s fun to finally understand it and know how it works.”