The NCAA Division II football playoffs — and winter — arrived in Golden a few weeks early.
No. 1 Colorado School of Mines hosted No. 9 Western Colorado in an Oct. 28 battle of the unbeaten, vying for the top spot in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference title race. And, if that wasn’t enough drama, Mother Nature threw in a snowstorm.
The Orediggers didn’t let the weather or the Mountaineers stop them, as they crushed the competition 42-7 to stand alone atop the RMAC standings.
“If we want to be the best, we have to play the best,” Mines senior quarterback John Matocha said.
He and Coach Pete Sterbick said the snowy battle felt like a postseason game, describing how the Orediggers have played in more playoff games than the Mountaineers. Ultimately, they said, that helped Mines get the W.
And the weather only added to that feeling, Sterbick said.
“The fact that it did feel like mid- to late-November (or) December, it really, really locked us in,” Sterbick continued. “I think we thrived off that.”
The Orediggers, now 9-0 overall and 7-0 in RMAC play, are preparing for their Nov. 4 Senior Day game against New Mexico Highlands. Afterward, they’ll close out the regular season Nov. 11 at Fort Lewis.
Sterbick was confident that, as the reigning No. 1 team in NCAA Division II, Mines will be in Golden most of the postseason.
“It’ll be special,” Sterbick said of Senior Day. “But at the same time, we’re not done yet. It won’t quite be the last home game.”
East vs. West
Even though a snowstorm was blowing in, more than 5,500 fans packed both sets of stands as the Orediggers and Mountaineers took the field. With the fans and the football players hyped up, the Orediggers started their initial drive.
Just as Matocha and company came within striking distance of the end zone, Western Colorado’s Ethan Sanchez-Maxwell intercepted Matocha’s pass and ran it 32 yards before he was tackled at the Western Colorado 47-yard line.
The Mines defense took the field guns blazing, though, as seniors Adrian Moreno and Nolan Reeve sacked Western Colorado quarterback Drew Nash for a 7-yard loss.
After the defense forced a three-and-out, the Mines offense made their second trip downfield. Although they had some promising looks, the Orediggers’ momentum fizzled after the Mountaineers stopped them on a fourth-and-1 at the WCU 16-yard line.
In the second quarter, the Orediggers got the first set of points on the board as Matocha found senior wide receiver Max McLeod for a 14-yard touchdown pass.
Afterward, players on both sides started getting chatty, and tempers flared between the teams. Mines was called for unsportsmanlike conduct on two consecutive plays, giving Western two first downs.
Still, the Orediggers continued to hold the Mountaineers at bay, and Mines made it a 14-0 game with 42 seconds left in the half.
After their offense had been stifled all half, the Mountaineers gave a shining example of a 30-second drill. They drove 67 yards in four plays, and made it a 14-7 game going into halftime.
Making history at the top
With Mother Nature’s furious flurries falling during the second half, the Orediggers showed exactly why, as Sterbick told them after the game, “there’s a reason we’re ranked No. 1.”
The defense nabbed two interceptions in the third quarter, allowing the offense to score two touchdowns in four minutes.
Suddenly, it was a 28-7 game, and Mines never gave Western a chance for a fourth-quarter comeback.
With 11:26 left in the game, Matocha made history with a 16-yard touchdown pass to McLeod. The Mines quarterback now leads the NCAA Division II in total career touchdowns with 172.
Matocha said it was “a blessing to be able to break the record,” crediting his receivers, linemen and coaches for his progress.
As the final seconds ticked away, the Orediggers in the stands and on the field celebrated the team’s top spot in the RMAC title race and firm status as No. 1 in the nation.
Matocha believed the attention and accolades were great for the program and the surrounding community.
“I want to be No. 1 at the end of the year,” he continued. “But … I’m not going to complain.”
While the postseason is looming, Matocha and Sterbick stressed that there’s still two regular-season games left. They wanted to focus on the next game and not get ahead of themselves.
“I don’t know if it feels different,” Sterbick said of the team’s No. 1 ranking. “I’m sure it puts the target a little more firmly on us. But … what a great problem to have. I think it’s motivating us, and I can’t wait to keep rolling.”
Click through additional photos from the Oct. 28 game here: