By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
Montana State University-Northern head football coach Walt Currie went into Saturday's game against University of Montana-Western with a simple plan: run the ball and shorten up the game so his inexperienced defense wouldn't have to spend much time on the field.
The game plan worked pretty well in theory, but the Bulldogs still managed to put a passel of points on the scoreboard in the limited time they were on the field.
Western needed just four minutes and 10 plays to score 21 points and put a somewhat close game completely out of reach and pick up a 49-7 win over the Lights at Blue Pony Stadium.
With the win, the Bulldogs notched their first win of the season to improve to 1-3 while Northern remains winless at 0-3.
"Our defense was so beat up, we thought that by running the ball and taking some time off the clock would limit the number of possessions in the game," Currie said. "The more their offense is on the field, the better their chance to break a big play."
Indeed, Northern's game plan worked for the entire first quarter and much of the second. Northern used a steady diet of runs from Tanner Cochrell and short passes to keep the clock moving. Western was limited to just two possessions in the entire first quarter.
The Bulldogs did manage to score on their first possession. Quarterback Travis Kirby marched Western on a 16-play, 88-yard drive that culminated with his 11-yard touchdown pass to Seth McLean with 3:43 remaining in the first.
On their second possession, Kirby was intercepted by L.D. Matthews with 17 seconds remaining in the quarter. The Lights took advantage of the turnover, marching 64 yards in 13 plays, most of it coming on the shoulders of Cochrell as he capped the drive with a 3-yard touchdown plunge. Chris Nagel added the point after to tie the game at 7.
"Tanner Cochrell really did a nice job running the ball," Currie said. "He made it so we were able to run with a little more consistency."
The tie game was short-lived as Western answered immediately, needing just seven plays and just under five minutes to score again. A miscommunication in Northern's secondary left Dallas Mock wide open and Kirby made the easy throw for a 17-yard touchdown.
The Lights appeared to have an answer for the Bulldog score, but quarterback Neill Crandell was intercepted by Nick Prinzing. Western took advantage of the good field position, needing just two plays as Josh Shrum took a short screen pass and scampered 40 yards for a touchdown.
Northern's ensuing drive fizzled on three plays, and a 14-yard punt from backup punter Nick Arnold set Western up with excellent field position at the Northern 40-yard line. Two plays later, Kirby found Cory Creighton alone behind the Light secondary for a 45-yard touchdown reception.
"Not having David Knight to punt has really hurt us," Currie said. "It's put our defense in some tough situations in terms of field position."
Instead of being down 14-7 going into halftime, the Lights found themselves down 28-7. The hole had turned into a gorge.
With a 21-point deficit, Northern had no choice but to scrap the original game plan and start throwing the ball more to mount a comeback.
Ryan Utterback recovered a Western fumble on the opening possession of the second half, giving Northern a little momentum and great field position. However, two plays into the drive, Crandell was intercepted for the second time by Prinzing.
Western needed just five plays - one of them being a 43-yard underneath screen to Jake Larson - to get into the end zone as Kirby dove in from 1 yard out for the score.
"Both of our turnovers were very costly," Currie said. "We were in good position both times and they also led to touchdowns."
Things didn't get much better for Northern. Western tacked on a pair of scores as Shrum scored on a 1-yard run and backup quarterback Travis Blome found Akamu Aki for a 53-yard touchdown pass.
"We didn't have many weapons on defense to stop their offense," Currie said. "They came in desperate for a win and they played hungry. We knew they were better than an 0-3 team and they played like it."
Cochrell led Northern with 67 yards rushing. Crandell was 9-23 for 89 yards before being injured, while Clint Herrera had three catches for 35 yards.
Kirby finished 21 of 29 for 330 yards while Creighton caught six passes for 105 yards.
But the Western scoring wasn't the only bad news. Northern had three players leave the game with injuries, the most serious being guard Lowell Hahn, who injured his knee. Crandell suffered a high ankle sprain while Cort Milks suffered an apparent concussion.
Crandell's ankle appeared to be fairly swollen and Currie won't know his status until early this week.
In his absence, freshman Jeff Fischer showed some flashes of potential as the Lights used him in several option plays.
"Jeff did pretty well," Currie said. "Hopefully, this will have him prepared for next week. we will prepare as if Neill can't go because we won't know his status until late next week."
As for next week, Currie believes his players will still be positive and able to bounce back.
"It's a good group of kids," Currie said. "They know its going to be tough at times, but they're going to grow with each game."
UM-Western 7 21 21 0 - 49
MSU-Northern 0 7 0 0 - 7
UM-W - Seth McLean 11 pass from Travis Kirby (Eric Zahler kick), 3:43.
MSU-N - Tanner Cochrell 3 run (Nagel kick), 9:54.
UM-W - Dallas Mock 20 pass from Kirby (Zahler kick), 4:41
UM-W - Josh Shrum 40 pass from Kirby (Zahler kick), 1:27
UM-W - Cory Creighton 45 pass from Kirby (Zahler kick), :41.
UM-W - Kirby 1 run (Zahler kick), 12:00.
UM-W - Shrum 1 run (Zahler kick), 7:43
UM-W - Akamu Aki 53 pass from Travis Blome (Zahler kick), 2:53.
First downs 26 22
Rushes-yds 33-175 44-155
Passing yds 401 135
Total plays-yds 64-576 73-290
Punts-avg 0-0 5-28
Fumbles-lost 3-1 3-1
Penalties-yds 7-81 8-100
Sacked by-yds 0-0 1-7
RUSHING - UM-W, Fernando Fantroy 14-72, Caleb Drinkwalter 11-64, Josh Shrum 4-31, Travis Kirby 3-8. MSU-N, Tanner Cochrell 22-67, Neill Crandall 6-27, Colt High 4-8, Kris Marshall 2-16, Jeff Fischer 4-7, Chad Olsen 3-2.
PASSING - UM-W, Travis Kirby 21-29-1-330, Travis Blome 2-2-0-71. MSU-N, Neill Crandall 9-23-2-89, Jeff Fischer 3-5-0-36, Nick Arnold 1-1-0-17.
RECEIVING - UM-W, Cory Creighton 6-105, Dallas Mock 5-68, Keahua Bowman 1-36, Jake Larson 3-35, Seth McLean 1-11, Caleb Drinkwalter 1-1, Hans Sevelsted 1-8. MSU-N, Clint Herrera 3-35, Kris Marshall 1-10, Colt High 1-12, Neill Crandell 1-10, Tanner Woodward 1-12, Nick Arnold 2-39.