By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
Football coaches aren't big on moral victories. They don't count in the standings. Really, they don't count for much of anything.
Montana State University-Northern football coach Walt Currie is no different when it comes to moral victories, but he saw plenty of positives in Saturday's 31-20 loss to the seventh-ranked Dickinson State University Bluehawks at Blue Pony Stadium.
With a truckload of young and inexperienced players on both sides of the football, Currie's team was an unknown product to even him going into its first game.
Some of the questions he had prior to the game have been answered, and some of his concerns have been eased as his team shook off the initial shock and butterflies with a gutsy performance.
"There were more positives about this game than I anticipated," Currie said. "Most of these kids have never played together in a real game. We didn't know what to expect from them."
In the first quarter, Currie's expectations didn't start out very high. The youthful Northern offense's first drive fizzled after six plays as quarterback Neill Crandell was sacked for a 12-yard loss and gave way to an even younger Northern defense.
The Lights defense looked overmatched on the first drive as DSU needed just six plays and about two minutes to find the end zone. Mike Spargo hooked up with Adam Eckert for a 17-yard touchdown pass to grab a 7-0 lead.
"We kind of had the deer in the headlights look," said defensive coordinator Mickey Williams. "We tried to warn them how fast things would be happening in the game, but I think they were a little surprised how much faster it is than practice."
The Northern offense had an answer for the DSU score with a little speed of its own. After needing three plays to pick up a first down, Crandell was flushed from the pocket, staved off two defenders and found Tanner Woodward alone behind the DSU secondary. Crandell heaved a wobbly off-balance pass that Woodward corralled. He slipped past a pair of DSU tacklers for a 68-yard touchdown. Chris Nagel added the extra point to tie the game at seven.
Dickinson wasted little time retaking the lead. On the first play of the ensuing possession, tailback Jace Schillinger took a quick pitch, broke a tackle and galloped 71 yards along the Northern sideline for the touchdown.
The Bluehawks tacked on another score just minutes later, capitalizing on a Woodward fumble. Spargo connected with Eckert on a fade route for a 68-yard touchdown to give Dickinson a 21-7 lead.
"I thought our execution was very good," said Dickinson head coach Hank Biesiot. "We were doing things we wanted to and hit on some big plays."
Down big early, Northern didn't fold up its tents. The Lights offense continued to pile up yardage, but was unable to find the end zone. And the defense weathered the early blitzkrieg and seemed to get more comfortable with the speed of the game.
"After that first quarter and initial shock wore off, things started to slow down and not seem so fast," Williams said. "The early nerves and tightness were gone and they started to make some plays."
Northern stifled a pair of DSU drives in the second quarter, limiting the Blue Hawks to a 35-yard Jeremy Fagerland field goal with 2:25 remaining in the half.
With the 1:12 remaining in the half, the Lights put together a solid drive, marching 67 yards as Crandell completed key passes to Clint Herrera, Nick Arnold and Kris Marshall in the drive. With six seconds remaining, Crandell tried desperately to hook up with Arnold in the end zone but his pass was long. Having missed a 33-yard attempt earlier, Nagel showed no effects as he drilled a 30-yard field goal with one second remaining in the half.
"He's a pretty cool customer," Currie said. "It makes a big difference having him and not having to go for the end zone on every play. That was key to get some more points before halftime."
The second half opened with the Bluehawks looking like the more inexperienced team as a pair of Schillinger fumbles came back to haunt them. Schillinger's first fumble came after Northern blew up a screen pass and Schillinger was hit almost as soon as he caught the ball. Linebacker Larry Klingaman scooped up the fumble and rumbled 28-yards for the touchdown.
"Turnovers are a part of the game," Biesiot said. "I have never seen the kind of ones we committed today, but if you stick around in football long enough, you're bound to see anything."
On Dickinson's ensuing possession, Schillinger was drilled by Bomont Somerfeld and the ball popped loose. Safety L.D. Matthews was in the right place, picking it up and heading for the goal line before being dragged down at the 5-yard line.
Northern didn't completely capitalize on the turnover. With first and goal at the five, Chad Olsen was held out of the end zone on three run trys and the Lights settled with an 18-yard Nagel field goal to cut the lead to 24-20.
"We have got to be better in goal line situations than that," Currie said.
Northern's defense that had earlier been on its heels was now forcing the situation. The Lights forced their third fumble of the game as Spargo was drilled after a long scramble by Matthews along the Northern sideline. The ball bounced high in the air and defensive lineman Lee Dresch fell on it.
However, the turnovers became contagious. Crandell marched Northern to the DSU 14-yard line but was picked off by Dickinson's Marcus Campbell in the end zone, ending the drive.
After being content to grind out the clock, Dickinson got a lift in the special teams as Eckert returned a David Knight punt 37 yards to the Lights 9-yard line. One play later, fullback Frank Renner bulled his way into the end zone to add to the Bluehawk lead.
"When you get a big lead early, sometimes you tend to get a little conservative," Biesiot said. "But we had some turnovers and some dropped passes that killed some of our drives."
Northern tried desperately to fight back but a pair of drives stalled and the heartbreaker came when three consecutive Crandell passes got the Lights to the DSU 1-yard line. But a muffed exchanged was recovered by DSU, ending the Northern drive and any hopes of a comeback.
"They're more of a grind-it-out offense," Currie said of DSU. "Once we got behind it, it took at least five minutes to stop them and at least two minutes for us to score. That's 14 minutes to put up two scores and we just couldn't do it."
Dickinson, known for its strong ground game, didn't disappoint. The Bluehawks amassed 313 yards rushing with Schillinger rumbling for 209.
Conversely, Northern gained much of its yardage through the air. The Lights rolled up 429 passing yards with Crandell completing 27 of 49 passes for 425 yards. Not bad in his freshman debut.
"I was just hoping that Neill was going to be respectable being it was his first college game," Currie said. "Never beyond my wildest dreams would he play like this. He was very composed and really spread the ball around the field."
Indeed, three Northern receivers - Herrera, Woodward and Nick Arnold - had more than 100 yards receiving while Kris Marshall finished just under the century mark.
Even with the tough loss, Currie was happy with the way his team competed and fought to the end.
"After they got up early, our kids didn't let down," Currie said. "It took awhile for them to get used to the game speed and they responded."
But a moral victory? Nope.
"There are some definite pluses there," Currie said. "This team was ranked seventh in the nation and we stayed with them. It made believers out of our kids. It showed we could be better than what even they expected. They know they can move the football, score points, be diversified and competitive."
MSU-Northern will be on the road this weekend in Billings when it faces Rocky Mountain College.
Dickinson State 21 3 0 7 - 31
MSU-Northern 7 3 10 0 - 20
DSU - Adam Eckert 17-yard pass from Mike Spargo (Jeremy Fagerland kick) 9:19
MSUN - Tanner Woodward 68-yard pass from Neill Crandell (Chris Nagel kick) 9:14
DSU - Jace Schillinger 71-yard run (Fagerland kick) 7:31
DSU - Eckert 32-yard pass from Spargo (Fagerland kick) 2:55
DSU - 35-yard FG from Fagerland 2:55
MSUN - 30-yard FG from Nagel :01
MSUN - Larry Klingaman 28-yard fumble return (Nagel kick) 8:05
MSUN - 17-yard FG from Nagel :20
DSU - Frank Renner 10-yard run (Fagerland kick) 7:57
First downs 22 19
Rushes-yards 23-72 56-313
Passing 28-50-2 8-18-1
Passing yards 429 129
Punts 7-33 6-39
Fumbles-lost 4-2 3-3
Penalties 4-30 7-90
Time of possession 37:35 74:25
RUSHING - DSU, Jace Schillinger 34-209, Mike Spargo 5-29, Damen Woolsey 8-21, Adam Eckert 1-17, Rafe Espinoza 2-12 Frank Renner 2-7. MSUN , Ryan Utterback 4-29, Chad Olsen 7-28, Neill Crandell 8-12, Colt High 1-0, Tanner Woodward 2-4, Tanner Cochrell 1-0.
PASSING - DSU, Spargo 8-18-1-129, MSUN, Crandell 27-49-2-425, Kris Marshall 1-1-0-4.
RECEIVING - DSU, Eckert 7-202, Hugo Anderson 1-27, MSUN, Clint Herrera 4-125, Nick Arnold 6-120, Tanner Woodward 5-113, Tanner Cochrell 2-9, Neill Crandell 1-3.