By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
If there is one coach in the Frontier Conference sympathizing with Montana State University-Northern football coach Walt Currie and all of the Lights' injuries, it would be Montana Tech head coach Bob Green.
Green's team has also been beleaguered by injuries this season.
Saturday's game won't qualify for a Red Cross disaster area, but the number of players who won't play is much higher than either coach would like to see.
"We've definitely been bit pretty hard by the injury bug," Green said. "It's stinging a little."
The Orediggers lost their two best players on both sides of the ball to serious injuries. Defensive end Jay Deal broke his ankle in a double-overtime loss to Carroll College and is done for the season. Two weeks ago, quarterback Aaron Johnson shattered his arm in a 20-3 loss to Whitworth. Johnson had to have metal plates inserted and is also gone for the season.
Both of the injuries have played a significant role in the Diggers' 0-3 start on the season. The loss of Johnson has been particularly painful.
"There is nothing we can do about Aaron's arm," Green said. "I'd give him mine if I could, but I don't think it will help. Offensively, we just improvise, overcome and adapt."
Tech used a duo of quarterbacks in last weekend's 49-13 loss to Weber State - redshirt freshman Jake Hill and true freshman and former Havre High all-stater Justin Kegel.
Hill started last week's game and will start again this week. Hill has completed 10 of 21 passes for 87 yards. He also completed four passes to Weber State, which led directly to scores.
"Weber has a tough defense," Green said. "We were down 7-0 after the first quarter. In the second quarter, frankly, we made some mistakes, some big mistakes."
Hill had one of his picks returned for a score, and two others set up Weber touchdowns.
Kegel didn't see as extensive action as Hill. He was planning on redshirting this season, but Johnson's injury forced Green to take Kegel out of his redshirt.
While Kegel isn't starting now, that doesn't mean he couldn't grab the starting job.
"As far as I'm concerned, the position is open," Green said. "They both have equal chances of being the starter."
Kegel only attempted two passes against Weber, completing one for 1 yard. Still, Green saw plenty of positives.
"Justin played fine," Green said. "He's a brand new guy out there and he drove us all the way to the goal line. He didn't throw an interception and did some things with the option."
Kegel will play on Saturday, according to Green. How much will be determined on who is playing better, Hill or Kegel.
Besides the injury at quarterback, last year's starting running back, Adam Cotton, did not play against Weber. Instead, freshman Josh Johnson took his spot, rushing for 87 yards on 23 carries. Their styles are very different, with Cotton being more of a bruising, straight-ahead runner. At 5-7, 160 pounds, Johnson is far from a bruiser. Regardless of who's in there, Green said his team will run the football.
"We run the football, plain and simple," Green said. "We need to run it to be successful. We still have to make some adjustments and find things in our offense for our quarterbacks to excel."
One thing that has hurt Tech, much like Northern, is turnovers. The Diggers have committed 12 turnovers on the season and that has to stop.
"We've never been a team that turns the ball over that much," Green said. "This year, without Aaron, we've committed a ton. We have to protect the football."
No, Green wasn't quoting Currie from past stories. It's just that both teams are suffering from the same affliction.
Northern once again leads the Frontier with 14 turnovers, which Currie hopes will change.
"We need to start forcing more turnovers and committing less," Currie said. "It seems like every time we commit one it leads to a score."
If there was a count, the Lights would probably be leading the conference in injuries as well. Green may have thought his team had a rash of injuries, but compared to Tech, the Lights have the plague.
Four more players went down in last week's loss to UM-Western. The most serious was starting guard Lowell Hahn's knee injury, which put him out indefinitely. Strong safety Cort Milks was leveled on a kickoff and suffered a concussion. He too will sit out.
Also last week, quarterback Neill Crandell suffered a high ankle sprain.
Crandell has practiced this week, but the ankle was still pretty tender, according to Currie. Still, it will take more than tenderness to keep Crandell off the field.
However, the ankle will change how he plays and how Currie calls the plays.
"We certainly won't be calling any more quarterback draws," Currie said. "Neill needs to be smarter in those situations and slide. This isn't high school. There are big boys out there that would love to hurt the quarterback."
Northern will once again play possession football and try to control the clock to take some pressure off its inexperienced defense. Tanner Cochrell was a workhorse last week for the Lights, and Currie will put a load on him this week.
"Traditionally, we've been able to run well against Tech," Currie said. "We're seeing improvement from Tanner every week. He is very strong, probably the strongest kid pound-for-pound on our team."
To control the clock, Northern must get something from its punting unit. Punter David Knight is trying to play this week but his kicking foot will be heavily bandaged around the ankle.
"I doubt he'll be able to punt like that," Currie said. "We need to find someone who can get it downfield consistently. I don't care if it's end over end, just get it further than 14 yards."
"For us to have a chance, we need to avoid turnovers, run the football and not give them great field position."
Saturday's game kicks off at 1 p.m. at Memorial Stadium on the Montana Tech campus in Butte. It can be heard locally on 92.5 KPQX-FM.