By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Samson and the Montana State University-Northern football team aren't trying to reinvent the wheel, they're just trying to fix it and get it rolling the right direction. That direction would be toward the end zone and that elusive win.
However, the UM-Western Bulldogs will offer a roadblock for the Lights as the two teams square off Saturday afternoon at Blue Pony Stadium in Frontier Conference football action.
Northern, 0-3 on the season, has still not scored a touchdown this season in three very lopsided losses. However, Samson isn't convinced that scoring a touchdown will be the cure-all for his team's problems this season.
"Everybody's been saying that once we get that first touchdown everything will be fine," he said. "But I want more than a touchdown, I want a win."
For Northern to get that win, certain things must change. Specifically, mistakes. Big ones, little ones, offensive, defensive - mistakes have absolutely crushed the Lights' chances for a win this season. It's not the systems or the plays, it's just been Northern's inability to execute them.
"We can't try and reinvent the wheel," Samson said. "We have to just try and fix it."
Northern has the tools to fix their offensive and defensive woes. However, some of those tools are pretty banged up.
Starting quarterback Kyle Samson is still questionable for Saturday after injuring his throwing shoulder in the last game against Montana Tech.
Kyle Samson has practiced a little this week, but Mark Samson said it would be a game-time decision to see if Kyle will play.
"I know he wants to be out there," Samson said. "Kyle isn't the type of kid that wants to be on the sidelines. But we have to get him cleared medically."
If Kyle doesn't play, last year's starter and backup Neill Crandell will take over. Crandell is a different type of quarterback than Samson, but, don't expect the Light's offense to change completely.
"It won't change as much as people will think," Samson said "We'll still run a lot of the same stuff, but maybe keep Neill in the pocket more."
One thing Samson is certain that his team must do better is run the football and be better in the redzone.
"We need to run the football better in certain situations, especially in short yardage to get first downs," he said. "And we have to better in the red zone. We had the ball four time inside the 20 against Tech and didn't score any points."
Northern's lack of a passing game hasn't helped their redzone production
"Our passing game still isn't very good," Samson said. "We're dropping passes, missing reads and we haven't found a go-to receiver yet."
While Northern's offense will remain relatively the same, people may be surprised at the offense that Western rolls out on Saturday.
The Bulldogs aren't quite the pass-happy bunch that they have been in the past under head coach Tommy Lee.
Western returns a whopping 20 seniors from last year's team that finished 8-4 and just missed out on the NAIA playoffs.
Despite all the returning starters, the loss of two-time all-conference quarterback Travis Kirby to graduation has forced Lee to do things a little different this season. Sophomore quarterback Travis Blome has taken over the reins, and as with any young player, there have been some growing pains.
Blome has been as inconsistent at times, showing flashes of brilliance, while frustrating Lee with inexperienced mistakes and inconsistency. On different occasions this season, Lee has went to touted freshman quarterback Keali'i Perbera, who has responded with some solid play.
"Travis is still our starting quarterback," Lee said "We may stick Keali'i in there for some snaps depending on the situation."
Luckily for Lee, he can offset the inexperience by handing the ball off to All-American running back Josh Shrum and his talented backup Caleb Drinkwalter.
Consequently, the Bulldogs have placed more emphasis on the running game than in the past. In its win over Rocky Mountain College last week, Western rolled up 200 yards rushing on 39 carries.
With Northern last in the conference in rushing defense at 297 yards per game, Samson believes the new-look ground-bound Bulldogs will run the football early and often
"I think they are going to come and try and run it down our throat," Samson said. "If they look at the tapes and the stats, I don't see why they wouldn't."
Said Lee: "We need to be more consistent in our running game. It's something we've worked on it all week."
It does help that Western has a line big enough to block out the sun. The front five averages around 315 pounds and uses brute size and strength over quickness
When and if Blome decides to pass, he does have talented, experienced receivers. Seniors Dallas Mock and T Artis lead a veteran group of receivers. Mock is third in the conference in receptions, while Artis, a former Northern player, is sixth.
If Western seems experienced on offense, its defense may be even better. The Bulldogs lost only one starter from last season and boast the best corps of defensive linemen and linebackers in the conference.
"They have a darn good defense," Samson said. "It's very experienced. Their front seven are probably the best in the conference and as good as they come."
The defensive line returns All-American defensive tackle Jereme Hess, who had eight sacks and 14 tackles for loss last season. This year he has four sacks and four tackles for loss. Joining Hess up front is all-conference defensive end Nic Rewerts, who leads the frontier with 7.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. Also up front are seniors Ruley Stingley and Guy Silvernale and junior Kama McKeague.
At linebacker, all-conference returnees Bryan Arntson and Eric Stoverud lead the team in tackles The Bulldogs also return its entire secondary of Ryan Keltz, Enoch McKeague, Nick Prinzing and Jake Shrum.
"We've been pretty good defensively," Lee said. "But Northern is dangerous with Kyle and Don Saisbury. We don't see much option during the season, so that puts a little more pressure on our defense.
"Northern is a dangerous team. They've hurt themselves with turnovers. If you take away the turnovers from last week's game, it's a lot closer than people would think."
Lee's observation is something that keeps Samson awake at night. Some how, some way, the Lights have to find that consistency on both sides of the football.
"We have to find some consistency," Samson said. "We're so inconsistent right now. I think we're a little uptight and trying too hard to do too much. We just need to relax and play like we're capable of playing."
Northern and UM-Western will kick off at 1 p.m. on Saturday. The game can be heard locally on 92.5 KPQX-FM.