by Ryan Divish
For head coach Mark Samson and his Montana State University-Northern football team, it's not an ending, but a beginning.
The Lights picked up their first win of the season, defeating the Rocky Mountain College Battlin' Bears 33-6 Friday evening at a chilly Blue Pony Stadium.
Not even an icy victory drenching of Gatorade coupled with frigid temperature could dampen Samson's spirit following his first win as the Lights' head coach.
"We're not 1-10, we're 1-0," said an elated Samson. "Seriously, we talked about it all week. We talked about getting a win and starting something, rather than feel like we're ending something. We want this win to be the beginning of something."
For Northern, it was the beginning of the game that would be crucial, and would ultimately be Rocky's downfall.
After opening the game with a 23-yard completion to Chris Colvin, quarterback Vance Vincent's third pass of the game bounced off Colvin's fingertips and into the waiting arms of senior safety Nate Walters. It was the start of a nasty trend for the Bears.
Rocky held Northern following Walters' pick, but Vincent was intercepted again on the Bears' second possession, this time by freshman safety Dilan Saisbury. Blessed with two turnovers in two possessions, the Lights weren't about to waste this one.
With good field position on the Rocky 30-yard line, Northern's offense appeared to be bottled up with an incompletion and just a 3-yard Samson rush. On a critical fourth-down-and-seven play, Samson connected with wide receiver Nick Arnold, who had beaten cornerback Roger Larson, on a pretty 27-yard scoring pass to give the Lights an early lead.
"Anytime you allow a team to get on the scoreboard early like that it's going to give them momentum," said Rocky head coach David Reeves. "Especially with a kid like Samson, because he's just going to feed off of it."
Rocky's momentum was going in the opposite direction. The Bears' problems continued on their next possession as three consecutive dropped passes gave Northern the ball back almost immediately.
Samson wasted little time. He found wide receiver Clint Herrera on a 38-yard option pass four plays into the drive to roll up a chunk of yardage. Samson's pass split a pair of Rocky defenders and Herrera made a tough catch between the wo.
However, Rocky's defense stiffened, limiting the Lights to just a 24-yard Chris Nagel field goal.
In their first two offensive series, the Bears netted a total of 23 yards, but things would only get worse. They marched 33 yards in six plays on their next possession before Vincent was picked off again. Northern linebacker Steve Beaty hauled in the errant toss, giving Northern the ball on its own 34-yard line.
Samson engineered a nine-play 66-yard drive that culminated with Don Saisbury's gritty 15-yard scoring run. With the Nagel point after, Northern found itself comfortably ahead 17-0.
"Turnovers hurt us again without a doubt," said Rocky head coach David Reeves. "What we'd give him five or six in the first half? You just can't do that."
Actually, it was five turnovers. It may have felt like six to Reeves.
The turnover barrage would continue for Rocky. The Bears' Justin Venn fumbled away to Northern, but the Rocky defense held. However, Vincent's fourth interception of the half would be painful. He was hit hard by Northern's oncoming pass rush right as he was throwing the ball, leaving a wobbly pass well short of its intended receiver. Northern cornerback Marc Samson grabbed the ball and weaved his way 45 yards down the sidelines for the score. Nagel's point after gave Northern a 24-0 lead, it's biggest lead of the season.
Rocky finally managed to get something going late in the first half. Vincent engineered a 10-play, 46-yard drive that kicker Jeremy Duprey culminated with a 31-yard field goal.
Northern took a 24-3 advantage into halftime, the first time it had led at half all season.
"Our offense played pretty well in that first half," Saisbury said. "We started off strong, and to get 24 points in the first half was big for us. It gave us some confidence."
While Northern was gaining confidence with every play, Reeves was looking for anything to get his team some momentum.
With that in mind, he had Duprey pooch kick the opening kick of the second half, which Colvin grabbed out of the air, giving Rocky good field position inside Northern territory.
"I thought we needed to get a little momentum coming out of halftime and get an extra series on offense," Reeve said. "We got what we wanted, but we just couldn't keep that momentum."
Rocky couldn't capitalize on the field position. Vincent was sacked for a loss and a dropped pass ended the drive with a Duprey punt.
It would finally be Northern's turn to return the favor with a turnover. Saisbury coughed up the ball on the Lights 16-yard-line, giving Rocky the ball back. But all the Bears could muster after a pair of failed Venn rushes and a Vincent scramble was a 37-yard field goal from Duprey.
Both teams slogged their way through the third quarter, with neither showing much consistency on offense.
"We struggled in the second and third quarter," Mark Samson said. "They ran a lot of stunts at us that we didn't do a good job of picking up, plus I think we got a little too relaxed."
Still, even if Northern's offense wasn't clicking, the defense kept the Lights in it with big plays, including two in the fourth quarter. A blocked Duprey punt led to a 25-yard Nagel field goal, while Walters' third interception of Vincent eventually led to a 10-yard Saisbury run.
"With the exception of turnovers, I thought we played pretty well," Reeves said. "You just can't put yourself in a hole like that and expect to crawl out."
Reeves' words had some validity. Northern and Rocky's final statistics were fairly close. The Lights outgained the Bears in total yards 364 to 226 and held a slight edge in first downs. But Rocky's seven turnovers compared with the Lights' two was the whole game.
Kyle Samson accounted for just 187 yards of total offense, rushing for 56 and throwing for 131 on 10 of 24 passing. He came in averaging well over 200.
"We did a pretty good job of bottling Samson up," Reeves said.
Saisbury had a game-high 122 yards rushing, while Arnold had three catches for 44 yards. Walters led the Lights with three interceptions and six tackles. Beaty had a team-high 14 tackles and an interception.
"It says a lot about this character of this team," Saisbury said. "There was a lot of times where this team could've given up. But we didn't. We came to practice every day and kept working hard. This win feels so good. Hopefully, it's the first of many more."
Vincent finished just 13 of 41 for 131 yards and the six interceptions. Running back/linebacker Justin Helvik was the Bears' leading rusher with 46 yards on 13 carries. Riley Stephenson caught five passes for 49 yards. Roger Larson had 14 tackles for Rocky.
Rocky wraps ups its first season under Reeves with a 1-7 record in the Frontier Conference and 1-10 overall.
Meanwhile, the trio of Samsons are going to relish this win a little.
"I am going to get a good night's sleep and go watch the Havre Blue Ponies on Saturday without having to hide my face," Mark Samson joked.
Said Kyle: "It's been a rough, rough season, but we never stopped fighting. To win this last game is a stepping stone for our program. We finally got that first win and we're going to carry that over into next year."