The Montana State University-Northern football team put up 88 points over its last two games — both victories. And it would be hard pressed for anyone to be playing better on offense than the Lights are right now.
But Northern’s next opponent might just be that team.
On Saturday afternoon, the Lights will welcome the Southern Oregon Red Raiders to Blue Pony Stadium for the first time since 2004, and SOU is coming to Havre with an offense that scores 48 points per game, and produced 68 points last week. So it’s game on. Kickoff is set for a special time of 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
“It’s going to be a big challenge to our football team,” Northern head coach Mark Samson said. “And probably the biggest challenge to our defense this season. But every week is. But the fact is, Southern Oregon is coming in here playing very good football and they have very good football players. So yes, it’s going to be a huge challenge for us to try and slow them down.”
The same can be said for SOU.
The Lights (2-3) and Raiders (2-3) are on similar rolls right now, and it’s been the play on offense which has stood out. SOU brings in an offense averaging over 600 total yards and nearly 400 through the air per game. The Raiders have the NAIA’s leading passer as well as one of the top receivers, while still boasting a running back who rushes for over 100 yards per outing. On the flip side, the Lights, who have won two in a row before the bye week, have one of the nation’s top passers in Derek Lear, the Frontier Conference’s leading rusher in Stephen Silva, and a deep and talented receiving group. And while SOU scored 68 points in a demolishing of Eastern Oregon last week, Northern took care of UM-Western and Rocky Mountain College by an average of 41 points per game before last week’s bye.
So when it comes to offense, both defenses have their hands full this week.
“The interesting thing is, Southern Oregon doesn’t do or run anything we haven’t seen before,” Samson said. “They may install a few new wrinkles, but we know exactly what to expect from them for the most part. So it really doesn’t boil down to that for us on defense. What matters is the personnel, and they have very good players. Their quarterback is a big strong kid with a good arm, they have a couple outstanding receivers and they have a very good running back. So for us, it isn’t as much the scheme that’s the concern, it’s the talent they have and how we defend it. It’s about our guys going out on defense and making plays and being smart. It’s about execution.”
And the Lights have been executing on defense. Senior linebacker James Chandless is third in the Frontier in total tackles, while junior defensive end Ryan Craig is second in the league in sacks with 4.5. Craig has earned three of those sacks in his last three games, while Matt Reyant is second in the Frontier in pass breakups. And Samson felt Northern’s defense played its best game of the season the last time out, when the Lights limited Rocky to just 19 points in a 42-19 win.
But with SOU’s passing attack, it won’t just be the secondary which will be pressed. Northern’s linebackers will have to be alert in pass coverage too as SOU likes to hit the short routes for big gains. And there’s matchup’s all over the field. SOU’s high-powered, up-tempo offense, in which the Raiders try to get a play off every 10 seconds or less, starts with Austin Dodge (6-2, 210), the sophomore transfer from Central Washington, who’s thrown for 1,860 yards, is first in the NAIA in total offense and has 17 touchdowns against just three interceptions. Dodge has yet to be held under 300 yards passing in a game this season, and he’s got a couple of speedsters to throw to. Cole McKenzie (6-2) is second in the NAIA in receiving yards per game, and he averages eight grabs and 137 yards per. Patrick Donahue (5-11) is another speedy target who’s caught 37 passes and has four scores this year, while Dodge is protected by a big offensive line which includes monstrous left tackle Jake Sullivan (6-3, 330).
SOU isn’t just a passing team however. Behind a big offensive line, the Raiders can run, and running back Manny Barragan is averaging 103 yards per game on the ground, so the Raiders can be balanced.
And the exciting matchups don’t end there. The Lights come in holding teams to just 213 passing yards per game and just 387 total yards. Meanwhile, a young SOU defense is seventh in the league in scoring defense, allowing over 30 points per game, and sixth in total defense, allowing 450 yards per outing. Northern is right behind the Raiders in total offense, averaging 470 yards per game, and the Lights are second in the league in both passing and rushing. Interestingly, SOU’s run defense is the second-best in the conference, allowing just 152 yards per outing, while Northern averages 207 yards on the ground.
And with Lear streaking, now averaging 263 yards passing and over 300 in total offense, with Silva coming off a school-record setting 217 yards against Rocky, and with Kyle Johnston and Brandon O’Brien both averaging over 18 yards per reception, something has to give this Saturday.
“I think, as an offense, we have to go out and help our defense by making sure we sustain drives,” Lear, who’s thrown for 1,319 yards and 15 TD’s said. “We have to make sure we move the chains and stay out there and not put our defense in bad spots. We have to take care of the ball and we have to score when we get chances. We have to score touchdowns. Those are things, as an offense, you want to do every week, but against a team that plays as fast as Southern Oregon does, it’s important for us an offense to really make sure we put good drives together and help do our part our part to help our defense out.
“On offense, we’re not going to change anything based on what they (Raiders) do,” Samson said. “We want to be balanced and we want to move the chains. And we want to take advantage of field position and score points when we’re in the redzone. Those are things we strive for every week and this week is no different.
“I feel like we’re coming off the best game we’ve played in a long time around here,” he noted the win over RMC two weeks ago. “And hopefully we can keep that going. Southern Oregon is a very talented football team, and they are playing at a really high level right now, so on offense, defense and special teams, we know we have a tremendous challenge in front of us. But our guys feel ready to go. We’re healthy for the most part right now, and they are excited for this game. This is a big one for us and for Southern Oregon and it should be a heck of a football game.”
The Lights last played the Red Raiders in 2004 in Havre. Northern is playing its third straight game at home and the Lights haven’t been on the road since a Sept. 15 loss at Dickinson State. SOU has won three of its last five, and would be on a three-game winning streak if not for a double-overtime loss at Montana Tech two weeks ago. The Lights and Raiders have had the last three Frontier Conference Offensive Player’s of the Week in Lear, Silva and Dodge. Lear and Dodge have both won NAIA Player of the Week honors as well this season.
Saturday’s game between the Lights and Red Raiders will kick off at 12:30 p.m. at Blue Pony Stadium. Northern is on the road next week, traveling to Carroll College, while SOU also stays on the road, paying a visit to UM-Western.
SOU hits town
MSU-Northern Lights (2-2, 1-3) vs Southern Oregon Red Raiders
Saturday at 12:30 p.m.
at Blue Pony Stadium
Radio: 92.5 KPQX FM
Internet: www.havredailynews.com or www.msun.edu/athletics
See the Game Day inside today's Havre Daily News