By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
A year ago when Justin Kegel walked off of the field at Blue Pony Stadium, it was on the losing end of the Class A state championship game against Miles City.
This time it was a much better feeling as he walked off the field a winner.
Kegel, making the third start of his college career, led the Montana Tech Orediggers to a 37-16 win over the Montana State University-Northern Lights on a glorious fall Saturday.
Kegel rushed for a pair of touchdowns and threw for another as Tech avenged a 29-22 loss to Northern a month ago.
"I can't say enough about Justin Kegel," said Montana Tech head coach Bob Green. "Having a true freshman quarterback is like sending a firefighter into a forest fire with gasoline-soaked underwear. Everyone is bringing heat on him, pressuring him and trying to get in his head. He's seen it all the past few games and still kept his composure."
Kegel, who was forced to give up his redshirt season after starting quarterback Aaron Johnson went down with a season-ending injury in the third game of the season, put up solid numbers, completing 11 of 20 passes for 110 yards while rushing four times for 57 yards.
If he had pregame jitters playing in front of his hometown fans, he didn't show it, turning in a brilliant return performance.
"I'm so glad to come back home and get a win," Kegel said. "I was actually less nervous for this game because I was coming back home and I'm used to playing here."
Northern grabbed a 3-0 lead on a 27-yard field goal by Chris Nagel late in the first quarter. It was the only lead the Lights would have in the game.
As has been the case all season, Northern could only watch as its opponent put up points in a hurry.
Tech reeled off 21 points in a span of three minutes to grab control of the game.
Running back Josh Johnson started the scoring spree with a 35-yard touchdown scamper. On Northern's ensuing possession, defensive tackle Matt Stepan blew up a Northern screen pass and intercepted Neill Crandell's short pass. Stepan rumbled 22 yards for the touchdown.
But Tech wasn't close to being finished. A Todd Schlaebitz 33-yard punt return set up Tech's next possession, as Kegel needed just three plays to find the end zone on a 3-yard touchdown plunge.
Down 21-3, a stagnant Northern offense finally got going late in the second quarter with a little lift from its special team. A stalled Lights drive stayed alive on a perfectly executed fake punt. Punter Nick Arnold connected with L.D. Matthews on a 17-yard pass to get a key first down. Three plays later, Tanner Cochrell scrambled in from 15 yards out.
Matthews intercepted a Kegel pass on the ensuing possession, giving Northern the ball back with time running out in the half. A pair of Crandell passes to Nick Arnold and Kris Marshall set up a 7-yard touchdown pass from Crandell to Clint Herrera. Nagel's point after cut the lead to 21-16.
Suddenly, a game that was teetering on becoming a rout became a little more interesting.
"Give Northern credit. They really turned the momentum around there," Green said.
Indeed, the Lights got even more momentum at the beginning of the second half as Tech fumbled the opening kickoff, giving Northern the ball and excellent field position.
However, the Lights' offense stalled and momentum dissipated as Tech took possession and Kegel scored on a 39-yard keeper.
"The play was designed for me," Kegel said. "I just put the ball in the running back's stomach for a fake and take off."
Tech got another score from Johnson and a Dan Kleckner field goal to pull away late in the game.
Johnson finished with a game-high 205 yards rushing on 32 carries as Tech's offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage in the second half.
"Our offensive front really dominated," Green said. "That's big because they were going against one of the best in Bomont (Somerfeld)."
Green attributed the Diggers' offensive execution to his coaches' preparation of Kegel and the offense.
"Our assistant coaches really had them prepared," Green said. "We knew that (Northern defensive coordinator) Mickey (Williams) was going to show us plenty of looks and he did. He brought every possible look you could imagine."
While Kegel and the Digger offense were moving the ball, the Northern offense was struggling. The Lights for the most part could not get drives started and the ones that were started could not be sustained.
"We never got in sync offensively," said Lights head coach Walt Currie. "We moved the ball a little, but we weren't very consistent. We tried to run our two-minute offense, we tried changing quarterbacks, we tried everything to get a spark in our offense."
All of Currie's efforts failed as Northern was never really able to mount many scoring opportunities in the second half.
"They put us in a terrible field position and it really limited what we could run," Currie said. "We just didn't produce in the second half when we needed to."
Cochrell led Northern with 80 yards rushing on 21 carries while Crandell completed 11 of 30 passes for 129 yards. Kris Marshall led the Lights' receivers with six catches for 87 yards.
Tech picked up its second consecutive win on the season and appears to be recovering from the rash of injuries that plagued the Diggers early in the season.
"This is the most complete game we've played all season," Kegel said. "We're on the right path. Northern played us hard, but we made the plays when we needed to make them."
As for his own personal performance, Kegel was diplomatic, saying he was still adjusting to the college game.
"The biggest part of the transition is the speed," he said. "All the players are so much faster and they also hit a hell of lot harder. I couldn't believe how hard they hit. That's been the biggest difference."
Northern falls to 1-8 on the season, and a two-week span in which Currie had hoped to pick up a pair of wins ended in disappointment.
"It's a tough loss," Currie said. "It's one we figured we had a shot at winning. We thought these last two games were very winnable. But our kids are resilient and they'll bounce back. We only have a few more weeks left and then a long break. I hope they make the most of these two weeks."
Montana Tech 0 21 13 3 - 37
MSU-Northern 3 13 0 0 - 16
MSUN - Chris Nagel 27-yard field goal 6:20
TECH - Josh Johnson 35-yard run (Dan Kleckner kick) 10:02
TECH - Matt Stepan 22-yard interception return (Kleckner kick) 9:48
TECH - Justin Kegel 3-yard run (Kleckner kick) 7:02
MSUN - Tanner Cochrell 15-yard run (kick failed) 2:37
MSUN - Clint Herrera 9-yard pass from Neill Crandell (Nagel kick) :50
TECH - Kegel 39-yard run (kick failed) 8:33
TECH - Conor Hogan 7-yard pass from Kegel (Kleckner kick) 2:24
TECH - Kleckner 41-yard field goal
First downs 20 23
Rushing-yards 47-296 41-191
Passing 11-21-1 14-47-3
Passing yards 110 144
Fumbles-lost 3-2 0-0
Punts 6-45.2 7-30.4
Penalties 13-158 6-75
RUSHING - TECH: Josh Johnson 32-205, Justin Kegel 4-57, Craig Tippett 3-14, Patrick Watson 1-8, Kris Anderson 1-5, Conor Hogan 1-5, Robb Schwend 2-0. MSUN: Tanner Cochrell 21-80, Jeff Fischer 6-34, Kris Marshall 4-9, Neill Crandell 2-9, Chad Olsen 7-38.
PASSING - TECH: Kegel 11-20-1-110, Jake Hill 0-1-1-0. MSUN: Crandell 11-30-2-129, Fischer 2-11-1-28.
RECEIVING - TECH: Johnson 1-0, Anderson 5-82, Kevin Dighans 1-10, Hogan 1-7, Watson 2-11. MSUN: L.D. Mathews 1-21, Kris Marshall 6-87, Tanner Woodward 1-12, Colt High 1-4, Clint Herrera 1-9, Nick Arnold 4-45.