By Ryan Divish
It wasn't exactly how Montana State University-Northern head football coach Walt Currie wanted to end the season. But it was a familiar ending nonetheless. The Lights, plagued by a critical turnover in the third quarter and several drive-killing penalties throughout the game, ended their season with a 24-21 loss to the UM-Western Bulldogs at snow-packed and chilly Blue Pony Stadium Saturday.
UM-Western capitalized on Northern's only second half turnover a muffed pitch on an option play on the Lights' own 20-yard line as quarterback Travis Kirby connected with Scott Glessner on a backside screen pass to pick up a critical touchdown. The Lights were also penalized nine time for 68 yards in the game. Although the penalties didn't cost the Lights a lot of yardage, they slowed many of their drives.
"The turnover by the goal line was real critical," said Lights head coach Walt Currie. "We had taken the lead and forced them to punt and we turn it over. It hurt pretty bad."
"We had a bunch of holding penalties that stopped our drives by putting us in bad field position. We had to try and convert too many long yardage plays. At one point we had been flagged seven times in a row before Western was flagged. And they're probably the most penalized team in the conference."
Despite the myriad penalties, Northern was still in position to win the game. The Lights took a 21-17 lead late in the third quarter when Western punter Eric Zahler bobbled the snap and was forced to elude the oncoming rush. Zahler did attempt to punt the ball, but it went awkwardly off his shin and traveled a few yards. Northern defensive tackle Bomont Somerfeld scooped the ball out of the air and lumbered 37 yards for the touchdown.
The Bulldogs answered on the ensuing possession. Western put together a nine-play 60-yard drive that culminated when quarterback Travis Kirby found Cory Creighton on a 16-yard touchdown pass with nine seconds remaining in the third quarter to put Western back on top 24-21.
After moving the ball consistently for much of the game, Northern's offense bogged down in the snow and ice during the fourth quarter. In four possessions in the fourth quarter, the Lights managed a total of 57 yards and three first downs.
The Bulldogs even helped Northern by fumbling late in the fourth quarter as they were trying to run the clock out. With 2:54 remaining in the game, Northern took over possession following the Glessner fumble. Following an incompletion, senior quarterback Brandon Kerkes was flushed from the pocket and inadvertently stepped out of bounds, setting up third down and 15. Kerkes completed a 5-yard pass to Travis Crawford, but his long pass to Tanner Woodward on fourth down fell harmlessly into the snow. Western knelt on four consecutive possessions to end the game.
Northern finishes its season 1-9 overall and 1-7 in the Frontier Conference. Western, 8-2 overall and 6-1 in the Frontier, will finish up its season next week as the team travels to Carroll College for a showdown that will determine the regular season conference champion.
Western opened the scoring when Kirby connected with Jeff Bowman on a 57-yard scoring strike. Northern answered as Kerkes found Chad Olson for a 6-yard scoring pass. The Bulldogs tacked on a Zahler 39-yard field goal with 22 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
Northern capitalized on a Bryan Kott interception of Kirby to open the second half. Kott returned the ball to the Western 17-yard line. Northern got into the end zone four plays later as Kerkes found Crawford on a short swing pass on fourth down and goal for the touchdown.
Kirby finished the game completing 22 of 45 passes for 315 yards and three touchdown passes. Kerkes finished 20-44 for 195 yards and two touchdowns. The Northern defense held Western to 35 yards rushing.
"Defensively, I thought we played as solidly as we have all year," Currie said. "Our kids played hard. It was just one of those games."
It was a disappointing end to a disappointing season for Currie and his team, who were picked to finish third in the preseason.
"You're always disappointed when the season doesn't turn out as you planned," Currie said. "But it's water under the bridge. We obviously see what we have to improve on for next season. We're going to hit the recruiting hard and try to find some good kids that can help us."