By Ryan Divish
All of the losses that Montana State University-Northern football coach Walt Currie has endured in his time with the Lights have hurt. But this one hurts just a little worse.
Northern's valiant second-half comeback fell just short as the Rocky Mountain College Battlin Bears held on for a 35-34 victory Saturday at a sun-drenched Blue Pony Stadium.
"That one hurt pretty bad," Currie said. "It hurts worse than probably any of the others."
It may have hurt worse than the others, but the problems that plagued the Lights in other losses haunted them once again specifically special teams, turnovers and penalties.
Northern missed a pair of extra points, allowed a 57-yard touchdown run by Rocky's punter, Mitch Cowen, committed 10 penalties for 104 yards and turned the ball over four times.
"You just don't win ballgames committing those type of mistakes," Currie said.
Despite all those miscues the Lights were still in position to win the game. With Northern training 35-34 with 1:50 left to play, the defense was able to stop Rocky giving the Lights the ball back at their own 40-yard line.
After three consecutive incompletions, quarterback Brandon Kerkes found Nick Arnold on a tough completion on fourth down and 10 to keep the Lights' drive alive. However, two plays later Ben Sanders intercepted an errant Kerkes pass to solidify the Rocky win.
"When you score five touchdowns in one game," Currie said, "you generally expect to win the game."
Even with Kerkes' interception, Northern probably should have been at least tied with Rocky.
Kerkes, who relieved starter Mitch Wilkins in the second half with the Lights trailing 28-15, led Northern to three scoring drives and what appeared to be the tying score.
Kerkes' 3-yard touchdown plunge brought the Lights within one at 35-34. But David Knight's point after attempt sailed just left of the left upright, leaving Northern still trailing by one.
"We played good enough to win," Currie said, "and made just enough mistakes to lose."
It was by far Northern's best offensive performance of the season. The Lights rang up 455 yards of total offense and set the tone early behind Wilkins, who was making his first collegiate start.
On the opening possession of the game, Wilkins led the Lights on an eight-play, 54-yard scoring drive. Northern used an assortment of options and short passes to running backs on the drive, which Wilkins punctuated on a 1-yard plunge. Chad Olsen's run gave Northern the two-point conversion and an 8-0 lead.
On the next Lights possession, Wilkins connected with Bill Templer on a 48-yard scoring strike. Tanner Smith's extra- point kick gave Northern a 15-0 lead and early momentum.
That momentum was brief. On the ensuing possession, Northern forced Rocky to go three and out. Rocky's punter, Mitch Cowen, bobbled the subsequent punt, but what looked like a good thing for the Lights suddenly turned bad. Cowen tucked the ball away, cut past the overpursuing coverage and ran 57 yards untouched for a touchdown.
"That play absolutely killed the momentum we had," Currie said. "And it put them right back in the ballgame."
It was Rocky's turn to capitalize on the momentum. Bears quarterback Adam Sanchez, making his first start of the season, threw three consecutive TD passes in the second quarter to give Rocky a 28-15 lead at halftime.
While Rocky's offense was clicking, Northern's offense suddenly turned stagnant. After a solid start, Wilkins threw three interceptions, and a myriad of holding penalties killed potential drives.
"Mitch just tried to do too much," Currie said. "His confidence got shaken a little."
At halftime, Currie decided to go with his former starter, Kerkes. And the Lights offense responded behing the play of the senior.
Kerkes took advantage of good field position thanks to a Chad Rearden interception to score on Northern's first drive of the second half. Kerkes connected with Arnold on an 11-yard touchdown pass to make the score 28-21. However, a bad snap and a botched hold caused the timing of Tanner Smith's extra- point kick to go awry and Smith kicked it into the offensive line.
Northern tied the game at 28 early in the fourth quarter when Travis Crawford, playing in his first game of the season, scored from 8 yards out and David Knight added the point after.
But on the ensuing possession, Sanchez led the Bears on an 11- play, 73-yard drive that culminated on his naked bootleg run from 7 yards out. Jeremy Duprey's extra-point kick would prove to be the difference in the game.
Sanchez completed 30 of 43 passes for 355 yards while teammate Zach Waitman caught five passes for 105 yards and a touchdown. Kerkes finished the game 8 of 14 for 158 yards while Wilkins was 6 of 12 for 109 yards. Arnold had a solid game for Northern with six catches for 75 yards.
Currie admitted that his players were hurt by the tough loss.
"The loss was hard on me and it was even tougher on them," Currie said. "But you have to come back and play again."
With the win, Rocky improves to 2-6 on the season with both of its wins coming against Northern. The Lights fell to 1-6 on the season. Northern will travel to Butte on Saturday to play Montana Tech the team they beat for their only win of the season.
Score by Quarters
6 22 0 7 -35
15 0 6 13 -34
MSUN Mitch Wilkins 1 run (Chad Olsen run) 11:06
MSUN Bill Templer pass from Wilkins 48 -yards (Tanner Smith kick) 6:11
RMC - Mitch Cowen 57 run (Fatupaito run no good) 2:48
RMC Zach Waitman pass from Adam Sanchez 45 yards (Duprey kick) 9:43
RMC Jon Owen pass from Sanchez 51 yards (Owen from Sanchez) 6:07
RMC BJ Charlton pass from Sanchez 40 yards (Duprey kick) 3:09
MSUN Nick Arnold pass from Brandon Kerkes 12 yards (Smith kick no good) 8:11
MSUN Travis Crawford 8 run (David Knight kick)12:00
RMC Sanchez 7 run (Duprey kick) 8:13
MSUN Kerkes 3 run (Knight kick no good) 5:32
Passing yards (NET)
Total Offense plays/yards
RUSHING: MSUN: Chad Olsen 10-53, Travis Crawford 7-28, Bill Templer 3-18, Brandon Kerkes 2-3, Ryan Utterback 14-43, Mitch Wilkins 8-39. RMC: Mitch Cowen 2-86, Adam Sanchez 9-42, Cory Albin 9-10, Junior Fatupaito 1-5, Justin Venn 1-0.
PASSING: MSUN: Wilkins 6-12-109-1, Kerkes 8-14-158-1, Stark 1-1 20. RMC: Sanchez 30-43-355-2
RECEIVING: MSUN: Nick Arnold 6-75, Templer 4-77, Crawford 2-63, Tanner Woodward 2-52, Brendan Dennehy 1-20. RMC: Zach Waitman 5-104, Joe Anthony 9-93, Jon Owen 6-82, B.J. Charlton 4-63, Albin 6-13.