By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
Montana State University-Northern football coach Mark Samson wants more than a moral victory this weekend, he wants a victory that goes down in the win column of the Lights season record.
Samson and the Lights will have a good opportunity for that win when they travel to Billings to face Rocky Mountain College on Saturday at Herb Klindt Field.
"We're in dire need of a win," Samson said. "We need one bad in this program. It's time to prove to ourselves all the hardwork and everything we're trying to do is paying off."
Last week's 30-23 loss to UM-Western could be constituted as a moral victory for Northern. The Lights broke out offensively, scoring three touchdowns in the game and had three chances to tie the game inside the Rocky 10-yard line.
However to Samson, it's still a loss on the Lights' record no matter how well they played.
"These losses, whether they're big or small, you try to learn something from each," he said. "The bottom line is to go out there and compete the best you can, but you are also supposed to win some ball games. That's what we have to start doing."
Perhaps nobody in the conference can identify more with Samson than Rocky head coach David Reeves.
Like Samson with Northern, Reeves is in his first-year of rebuilding Rocky's program into prominence.
Also like Samson, Reeves and his team are desperately looking for that elusive first win of the season.
"I think we're making progress much like Northern," Reeves said. "We're trying to build something here that is going to take some time."
Rocky too has had its share of moral victories this season. The Battlin' Bears have played nationally-ranked University of Mary close, gave UM-Western all it could handle and narrowly missed out on beating perennial NAIA power Southern Oregon.
With a high number of new faces, Rocky has battled some inconsistency on both sides of the ball this season.
"We've got to eliminate mental mistakes," Reeves said. "We've made some turnovers, haven't been able to score in the redzone and committed some penalties that have hurt us at different times this season."
Offensively is perhaps where the biggest questions remain for Reeves and Rocky. The Bears are last in the conference in total offense and second to last in scoring offense. RMC is averaging just 222.8 yards and 8.8 yards per game this season.
"They've struggled to score points this season like we have," Samson said. "Statistically, they are behind us in total offense."
Rocky last in the conference in total offense?
Yes, it seems crazy to think, since the Bears never had trouble racking up yards in its fun-n-gun days. However, Reeves' team isn't playing that "basketball on grass" philosophy, choosing to play more ball control. It didn't help out the situation, losing senior quarterback Adam Sanchez to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in spring drills.
Rocky started University of Idaho transfer Drew Pearce early in the season, but last week Reeves went with true freshman Vance Vincent of Libby.
Vincent will get the start Saturday, after throwing for a 130 yards and a touchdown in last weekend's 35-9 loss to Carroll College. Vincent also tossed a pair of interceptions inside Carroll's 5-yard line.
"They are a little bit inexperienced at quarterback and we need to get some pressure on him and hopefully he'll make some mistakes," Samson said. "That's one area where we haven't been good at this season. We've only forced two turnovers the whole season."
"Our offense is trying to find itself still," Reeves said. "Hopefully, Vance can give us that boost like he did last week."
Although, Vincent attempted 29 passes last week, don't look for a wealth of attempts from him out of the shotgun formation to five wide-receiver sets. Instead, Rocky will go with a tight end on most occasions and try to pound it at Northern's youthful defensive line with running back Clint Franklin.
Franklin is sixth in the conference in rushing and racked up 120 yards against Carroll.
"They're going to establish the run first," Samson said. "We did a good job of stopping the run last week and that's why we had an opportunity to win.
Despite a great effort last weekend, Northern's defense is still giving up 226.5 yards per game on the ground to opponents, which makes Rocky dangerous.
"They're kind of in the same boat we are on offense," Samson said. "If they really kind of break loose on offense, their whole team is going to play better."
That may not be good for Northern. Rocky's defense has been its most consistent aspect all season. The Bears are third in the conference in team defense, allowing just 5.2 yards per play and forcing eight turnovers this year.
"The strength of their team really is their defense," Samson said. "He has a few seniors that lead them and their secondary is pretty tough. What they're doing is playing simple defensive football. They aren't doing anything fancy. They just play solid and make sure they don't beat themselves."
Defense is a trademark of Reeves, who was a standout linebacker and linebackers coach at the University of Montana. As a defensive guy, his biggest concern is stopping Northern quarterback Kyle Samson, who racked up 421 yards of total offense last week against Western.
"He's the trigger man for that offense," Reeve said. "He's a big concern because he's so athletic and can make things happen."
Reeves said his defensive line must stay disciplined in its pass rush lanes to avoid big scrambles.
"We need to be more aware of where he is at all times," he said. "All it takes is a little opening."
Rocky will have to contain run-receiving threat Don Saisbury and a revitalized Northern passing game led by receivers Nick Arnold, Dan Wirtzberger and Todd Nelson.
"Nick had a nice game for us last weekend," Samson said. "Dan had a great week of practice. Because we make him practice as a quarterback all week, he really has a feel of where routes need to be run against defense."
One thing is for certain, following Saturday's game there will only be one winless team in the Frontier Conference.
"We need to go down there and be focused from the start," Samson said. "Rocky is a place that hasn't been kind to Northern in the past, hopefully we can change that with a win."
Northern and Rocky will kick off on Saturday at 1 p.m. The game can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM.