By Ryan Divish
To say that the Montana Tech football team has a little incentive when it faces Montana State University-Northern would be a slight understatement. It would be like saying that the wind sometimes blows in Havre. Call it revenge, redemption or retribution, whatever way you paint it, after losing to the Lights earlier this season, the Orediggers want some. And they will get that chance Saturday as they host Northern at Alumni stadium in Butte.
It's a unique feature of the Frontier Conference with all the teams playing each other twice. Instead of waiting an entire year to avenge its 18-13 loss to the Lights on Sept. 21, Montana Tech had to wait 30 days.
"There is definitely more than a little incentive for them," said Lights head coach Walt Currie. "We kind of ruined their season in a way and there are definitely going to be fired up to beat us."
Ruining Tech's season may be a bit of an overstatement. But since that loss things have certainly gone downhill for the Diggers. Tech, 1-3 in the conference and 2-5 overall, has lost four of its last five games. After tying for the regular season conference title last season, the Diggers are just trying to remain out of the conference basement.
"To be honest we're in a situation we haven't been in before," said Tech head coach Bob Green.
In the past 10 years, the Diggers have been one of the Frontier's most consistent performers. And they were expected to contend this year as well. However, Tech has continually come up on the short end of close games this season and it started with the loss against Northern.
In that game, Northern was able to do something it hasn't done all season take care of the ball. Senior quarterback Brandon Kerkes played his best game of the season completing 22 of 36 passes for 245 yards, and led Northern on a 15-play, 87-yard drive culminating with a 11-yard touchdown pass to Kris Marshall for the game winning score.
"Give Northern credit they played great and carried the day," Green said.
The win was Northern's first over Tech since reinstating the football program in 1998. But more importantly, the win was supposed to be a springboard that would propel the Lights into the rest of the season. But it didn't happen. However, Northern hasn't won a game since.
But just because both teams are in bottom half of the conference standings, doesn't mean either team has given up on the season.
"We've been blessed with good kids," Green said. "And the credit goes to them. They haven't give up and we've continued to have great practices."
Said Currie: We certainly haven't given up. We're trying to win some football games here at the end."
Although both the Lights and Diggers have struggled since their initial meeting, that's where the similarities end. Northern has been decimated by injuries on defense and used a trio of quarterbacks that change as often as the Montana weather.
After losing his starting job for the past two weeks, Kerkes will start again on Saturday. Besides playing well against Tech the first time, Kerkes played solidly in last weekend's 35-34 loss to Rocky Mountain College. Kerkes led the Lights to three second-half touchdowns and put them into position to win the game. Last week's starter, freshman Mitch Wilkins, played well early, but struggled at times. Despite not starting, Wilkins will play in Saturday's game, that much Currie guaranteed.
"Brandon will start," Currie said. "But Mitch is going to play. We're just trying to bring him along slowly. He's getting better every week."
Tech, on the other hand, has had no such quarterback quandaries. Skylar Perry will lead the Diggers and look to improve on his earlier performance against the Lights. Perry completed just 15 of 29 passes for 149 yards. Northern's vaunted defensive front harassed, harangued and hurried Perry all game.
Perhaps Tech biggest key will be the running of tailback Adam Cotton. The freshman from Cascade was forced to start his first game of his collegiate career against Northern when starting tailback Justin Johnson went down with a knee injury. Cotton did run for a 144 yards, but as Green said, "he earned every one of them." Cotton has now had the benefit of seven games under his belt.
"He's gotten better every game," Currie said. "He isn't the same back he was when we played them."
Besides Cotton , Green is optimistic that Johnson will be healthy enough to play on Saturday. Wide receivers Renzy Kelly and Dustin Dennison are also potential weapons for Tech. All-conference kicker Chris Casne kicked three field goals in the first meeting and is always a factor.
Northern also welcomed the return of their starting tailback last week. After missing the entire season, Travis Crawford returned to the lineup last week against Rocky and immediately made his presence felt. Crawford caught a pair of passes for 63 yards including a 44-yard burst that came on a short swing pass. He also rushed for 28 yards including a nifty 8-yard touchdown run.
"He makes a huge difference," Currie said. "He's got good acceleration and he's very effective down around the goal line."
With their offense completely healthy, Northern isn't going to do anything too fancy or too different than what they did to beat Tech the first time.
"We're going to run our stuff and run it well," Currie said.
The same can be said for Green and Tech.
"We've prepared essentially the same way the entire season," Green said. "We aren't going to change anything now."
The Northern-Tech game will kickoff at 1 p.m. and can be heard on 92.5 FM KPQX.