Nick Brown is playing football at Montana Western University for all the right reasons.
Strong academics, a small-town atmosphere and a sense of family that only a small school can provide.
This year, there may be another: winning.
The former all-state lineman from West Valley High School opened his fifth and final year last weekend with a 38-6 win over Frontier Conference rival Montana Tech – something to build on for a program that feels ready to take the next step.
Said Brown: “Beating Tech was definitely awesome, and it boosts our confidence.”
The NAIA Bulldogs will jump two competitive classes when they visit FCS power Eastern Washington on Saturday night.
“They’re faster than any team we’re going to face this year, but we’re going to go in with our power running game and try to shock them a little bit,” Brown said of the Eagles, who are coming off a 56-35 win over Sam Houston State.
More importantly, the Bulldogs hope that a good outing will continue the jump start they got by beating arch-rival Tech. MWU hasn’t enjoyed a winning season since a trio of them in 2002-4 – which was tough for for the 6-foot-2, 275-pound Brown, who knew nothing else at West Valley.
In his senior year in 2009, he helped the Eagles to a spot in the state 2A quarterfinals. He redshirted his first year in Dillon as the Bulldogs went 1-10, then 2-9 as he broke into the starting lineup in just his second year.
But back-to-back 4-6 seasons have fans hoping for more at MWU, where football is almost as big as the school itself. Out of about 600 male students, more than 100 are in the football program, and tiny Dillon, Montana (population 4,134) is the home of a 3,500-seat Vigilante Field.
“Football is pretty big in Montana,” said second-year coach B.J. Robertson, a former Bulldog running back who in 1994 helped lead MWU to a conference title and a spot in the NAIA Division I title game.
Robertson takes a level-headed approach to Saturday’s game in Cheney.
“It’s not about who we are playing, it’s about us,” Robertson said. “We have some kids who feel like they could have played up a level, but the big thing is what helps us move forward.”
Even if they some of them come full-circle. By next year, Brown expects to be back in Spokane, working toward a teacher’s certificate. In the meantime, Saturday’s game will be an early homecoming; Brown expects a big group of extended family, friends and former high school coaches in attendance.
“It’s cool that they’re going to support me, but I hope they’re also going to support the whole team,” Brown said.
The Montana Western roster also includes former Post Falls wide receiver Matt Lickfold, who missed the 2013 season with an ACL injury but caught a 59-yard touchdown pass against Montana Tech. … This will be Beau Baldwin’s first game as Eastern’s head coach against an NAIA opponent; the Eagles’ last NAIA foe was none other than MWU, which fell 52-13 in Cheney in 2007. The Bulldogs’ last foray into the FCS was a 42-9 loss at North Dakota in 2011. …In 2011, Forbes Magazine named Dillon one of “America’s Prettiest Towns.”
Big tests for the Big Sky
The first full week of the college football season for Big Sky teams features 12 games, including 10 against FBS teams. Four teams open the season tonight: Idaho State is at Utah, while Cal Poly is at New Mexico State. North Dakota plays its first game under new coach Bubba Schweigert at San Jose State, while Weber State opens the Jay Hill era at No. 18 Arizona State.
Portland State and UC Davis both open Saturday against Pac-12 opponents. Portland State is at Oregon State, which has lost to Big Sky teams in two of the past three seasons. UC Davis opens at No. 11 Stanford. The Aggies stunned the Cardinal in 2005. Southern Utah, a playoff team in 2013, takes on Nevada in Reno, and No. 5 Montana treks to Laramie to face Wyoming and its new coach Craig Bohl, who guided North Dakota State to three straight FCS national titles.
No. 23 Northern Arizona opens at San Diego State of the Mountain West Conference. That game will be televised nationally on the CBS Sports Network No. 18 Montana State begins life without DeNarius McGhee when it travels to Arkansas State of the Sun Belt Sacramento State opens its season at Incarnate Word of the Southland Conference.
Sears in charge again
Jody Sears begins his third season as a head coach in the Big Sky, but his first with Sacramento State on Saturday. Sears, a former defensive coordinator at EWU, spent the previous two years as the head coach at Weber State. He was hired as the Hornets’ defensive coordinator, but was elevated to interim head coach after the resignation of Marshall Sperbeck.