By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
Montana State University-Northern head football coach Walt Currie doesn't like to be pessimistic, but he also isn't afraid to be a realist either.
Somebody has to remind his team that despite its solid performance last weekend, there is still something missing in their record - a win.
"They haven't beat anybody yet," Currie said. "We might have surprised some people with the way we played last weekend, but we didn't beat anyone. Moral victories don't count for anything on your record."
Currie's words aren't meant to be harsh or callous, but it doesn't make them any less true.
The Lights are still 0-1 on the season and will open their Frontier Conference schedule on Saturday in Billings, when they face the Rocky Mountain College Battlin' Bears.
Northern is coming off a strong showing against seventh-ranked Dickinson State last week in its season opener. Although they lost, 31-20, to the Bluehawks, the Lights were in the game - trailing just 24-20 in the middle of the third quarter - before a late DSU touchdown and a pair of costly turnovers ended the Lights' hopes.
Like Northern, Rocky also suffered a loss in its home opener to a ranked team from North Dakota.
Rocky suffered a 34-9 loss at the hands of the eighth-ranked University of Mary Marauders in Miles City. Mary's backup quarterback Thomas Kirchhoffer threw for 325 yards and three touchdowns while Rocky had several drives falter in Mary's red zone.
Like Northern, Rocky had some costly turnovers - six in all - that never allowed them to get in any rhythm offensively.
Unlike Northern, the Bears couldn't force any key turnovers. The Lights forced DSU into four turnovers including three fumbles - one of which was run in for a score by linebacker Larry Klingaman while another fumble recovery led to a Chris Nagel field goal.
Like Rocky, Northern had its woes in the red zone. Twice, Northern had the ball first and goal inside the five-yard line and came away with a total of three points. Currie has reminded his team constantly this week, that they must be better than that. Consequently, the Lights have spent some additional practice time this week on it.
"We have to be better than that," Currie said. "We were happy to come away with three points which we couldn't do a year ago, but we should've gotten two touchdowns and won the ballgame."
Still, Northern's offense was solid, particularly the play of redshirt freshman quarterback Neill Crandell and his quartet of receivers - Clint Herrera, Nick Arnold, Tanner Woodward and Kris Marshall.
Crandell set a Northern single-game passing record by completing 28 of 50 passing attempts for 429 yards and a touchdown.
"Neill's set some pretty high expectations with that first game," Currie said. "They're going to pressure him, since he's a young quarterback. Our offensive line played well beyond my expectations. Hopefully, they can play to that level again."
One thing that Currie does hope for is a little more balance on offense. Sure having Crandell throw for a lot of yards was great, but he'd like to see a little more production from a ground game that mustered just 72 yards against DSU.
"I would like to have a little more balance," Currie said. "We should be able to gain more on the ground with our wide-open offense."
Part of the reason, Northern was forced to throw so many times is because the Lights managed to dig themselves a 24-7 deficit in the first half.
An inexperienced defense looked a little shell-shocked in the first quarter and took the entire period to get adjusted to the game speed as DSU scored three touchdowns on its first three drives.
"We can't have that lag in the first quarter to adjust to the game speed," said defensive coordinator Mickey Williams. "They have to be prepared to play at that level right away."
Being prepared is even more key, especially against a team like Rocky, which is the polar-opposite of DSU in offensive style and scheme.
Dickinson played a power ground game and mixed in a few play-action passes along the way. Rocky likes to mix in an occasional run along the way while throwing it upwards of 50-60 times a game.
Basketball on grass is what some people call it, fun'n'gun is another name for it, call it whatever name you want, but for Williams and his defense it's called - dangerous.
The offense is designed to overload the secondary with receivers and throwing short to mid-range passes with the hope of breaking a few big plays.
"We have to avoid big plays," Williams said. "Any time a team throws the ball 40 to 60 times a game you worry about the big play."
The Bears certainly have the weapons for few big plays. Quarterback Adam Sanchez returns for his junior year, penciled in as the starter, after replacing Benton Johnson midway through last season.
In his first start last season, Sanchez threw for 355 yards and three touchdowns while running for another as Rocky eeked out a 35-34 win in Havre.
But that game was at the end of the season. In their first meeting last year in Billings, Rocky reeled off 45 unanswered points in a 45-7 win.
In that game, Northern's six turnovers forced the defense to remain on the field most of the game. Williams knows turnovers happen and his young defense needs to remain resilient at all times.
"We have to understand that turnovers or big plays are going to happen," Williams said. "We have to be better in that transition during games and staying focused if thing aren't going are way. It's something they don't understand quite yet."
The Northern defense will not only have to deal with Sanchez but his favorite target in all-conference receiver B.J. Charlton, who led the Bears in all receiving categories last season. Running back Cory Albin is solid and receiver Jon Owen possesses big play capability.