By Ryan Divish
An old ghost came back to haunt the Montana State University-Northern football team on Saturday. After seemingly exorcising turnovers from its offense, Northern committed five turnovers all interceptions in a 34-20 loss to UM-Western in Dillon.
A turnover is costly anytime. While only two of Northern's turnovers directly led to points, they did cost the Lights scoring opportunities and bog down the offense. Northern quarterback Brandon Kerkes was intercepted on four consecutive possessions in the first half and Northern's offense never had the ball long enough to establish any type of rhythm.
"We let it get out of hand before we really even got into the game," said Lights head coach Walt Currie.
Northern actually started off the game by forcing a turnover. Safety Brenden Dennehy picked off Travis Kirby on the first play of the game to give Northern great field position at Western's 36-yard line. However, Northern couldn't capitalize and was forced to punt. Western put together a solid drive that culminated with running back Scott Glessner taking a shovel pass from Kirby and racing 60 yards for a touchdown.
On the ensuing possession, Lights quarterback Brandon Kerkes threw the first of his four interceptions in the half. The pick gave Western's offense good field position at the Lights' 35-yard line. However, Northern's defense held strong and Western settled for a 23-yard field goal.
Trailing 10-0, Kerkes was intercepted on the next three possessions, the most costly coming after Northern had marched deep into Western territory. That interception led to a Zahler 36-yard field goal.
That drive should have ended when Zahler missed a 52-yard attempt. However, a Northern player lined up offsides, giving Western a first down. Seven plays later Zahler made his second field goal of the half.
Western added another score on a 5-yard pass from Kirby to Brandon deLeon to give the Bulldogs a 20-0 halftime lead.
While it wasn't great to be down 20 at the half, Currie knew it could have been much worse. But his injury-ravaged defensive unit remained steadfast despite playing in the shadow of its own goal post for most of the half.
"If you give Western that many opportunities, they're going to score eventually," Currie said. "For being a patched-up defensive unit, they played pretty darn well."
After the first-half struggles, Currie made some personnel changes on offense. Kerkes was lifted for the duo of Mitch Wilkins and Chris Hess.
"We needed to try something different," Currie said. "When something isn't working, sometimes you need to change the chemistry. I was hoping (Wilkins and Hess) would provide a spark."
And they did. On the opening drive of the second half, Hess connected on a 57-yard pass to Tanner Woodward to set up a 2-yard Ryan Utterback scoring plunge. David Knight missed the point after.
Western added to its lead on a pair of Kirby touchdown passes to deLeon and Jake Larson to push the lead to 34-6.
But Northern remained vigilant. Hess and Wilkins each led scoring drives in the fourth quarter. Bill Templer scored on a 5-yard run, while Wilkins connected with Clint Herrera on a 25-yard touchdown pass with 1:22 remaining in the game. Hess added the two- point conversion. However, the scoring push was a little too late for the Lights.
"If we would have played as well offensively in the first half as we did in the second half, it might have been a different game," Currie said.
Kirby completed 22 of 40 passes for 294 yards, but threw two interceptions in the game.
Ryan Utterback and Bill Templer combined to rush for 144 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Kerkes completed seven of 19 passes for 134 yards.
UM-W Scott Glessner 60 pass from Travis Kirby (Eric Zahler kick)
UM-W FG Zahler 23
UM-W FG Zahler 42
UM-W Brandon deLeon 5 pass from Kirby (Zahler kick)
MSU-N Ryan Utterback 2 run (kick failed)
UM-W DeLeon 54 pass from Kirby (Zahler kick)
UM-W Jake Larson 11 pass from Kirby (Zahler kick)
MSU-N Bill Templer 5 run (Chris Hess run)
MSU-N Clint Herrera 21 pass from Mitch Wilkins (kick failed)
Rushing MSU-Northern, Ryan Utterback 16-84, Bill Templer 8-60, Mitch Wilkins 4-41, Chad Olsen 7-26, Scott Ramsey 6-1, Chris Hess 4-(-3), Brandon Kerkes 4-(-13). UM-Western, Scott Glessner 9-29, Caleb Drinkwalter 3-14, Travis Kirby 5-13, Bryan Agbalog 7-12, Jeff Bowman 1-9, Josh Shrum 3-4, Jeff Yeager 1-1, Team 1-0, Mychal Dipwek 2-(-2).
Passing MSU-Northern, Kerkes 7-19-4-134, Wilkins 3-9-0-49, Hess 2-6-1-24. UM-Western, Kirby 22-40-2-294, Kevin Flatow 0-1-0-0.
Receiving MSU-Northern, Tanner Woodward 3-87, Clint Herrera 3-87, Nick Arnold 2-36, Templer 2-20, Richard Jarvis 1-14, Olsen 2-12. UM-Western, Brandon deLeon 6-87, Glessner 1-60, Dallas Mock 4-37, Agbalog 1-25, Bowman 3-24, Joel Botelho 1-18, Jake Larson 3-17, Cory Creighton 2-16, Dipwek 1-10.