By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Montana State University-Northern football team's scoring drought ended in a big way on Saturday afternoon, unfortunately their winless season did not.
The Lights (0-4 overall, 0-3 in conference) saw their hopes for their first win of the season end with seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, as UM-Western corner Ryan Keltz came on a blitz and sacked Northern quarterback Kyle Samson on fourth and goal, to secure a 30-23 win for the 25th-ranked Bulldogs.
"I'm just happy with a win," said Western head coach Tommy Lee. "We're very fortunate to get out of here with a win."
Keltz' play came after Samson and the Lights' offense marched 58 yards in just under a minute to give Northern a chance to tie the game.
Western All-American kicker Eric Zahler missed a 55-yard field goal attempt by just a few feet with 2:05 remaining in the game, giving the Lights one final possession.
Samson took control, using a mixture of passes and scrambles to move the Lights deep into Western territory. After a six-yard keeper, he connected with wide receiver Todd Nelson for a 21-yard completion to get the drive started. He followed that up with a 14-yard pass to Dan Wirtzberger to put the Lights on the Western 21-yard line.
After an incompletion, Samson found Nick Arnold on a short pass for four yards. On third down, Samson's pass to Arnold was short, setting up a critical fourth down and six play.
After his team's final timeout, Samson found Don Saisbury on a short crossing pattern for 12 yards and a key first down.
But that was as far as the Lights would get. Samson spiked the ball intentionally on first down to stop the clock. On second down, he was sacked for no gain and on third down his pass to the corner was incomplete, setting up Keltz' heroics on fourth down.
"I didn't see him at all," Samson said. "They hadn't run that blitz the entire game or in any of the film we saw."
Said Lee: "We had to do something there. You can't sit back or Kyle will kill you. You have to take some chances, and we did it with a blitz. Fortunately, he didn't see it coming. I'm proud of the ways our kids played, especially with Kyle engineering that last drive. You're never secure until that last play is over"
Had Samson seen the blitz coming, he may have had a very good chance to score. That last play is something head coach Mark Samson is going to be replaying over in his mind all week.
"I'm going to regret my decision on that last play," Samson said. "If we just stayed with our 90 series, we would have had a better chance. But they hadn't run a corner blitz the whole game and then they run it there. Who would have guessed it? Kyle saw him too late. If he gets away from him, he is probably going to score."
It was a tough ending for the Lights, considering the game they played. After being plagued by turnovers and mistakes in their first three games, Northern played virtually mistake-free football. It was something Lee expected.
"They had no turnovers today," Lee said. "They're a good football team when they don't turn the ball over, and that's what killed them against Tech and Carroll."
Things didn't start off very well for Northern. Western took the opening kick all the way to the 50-yard-line. Then on the first play from scrimmage, quarterback Travis Blome connected with Dallas Mock for a 49-yard completion, putting Western at Northern's one-yard line.
Blome plunged into the end zone two plays later to put Western up 7-0. It was definitely not the way Mark Samson had envisioned starting the game.
"We didn't do everything right, but it was nice to see the kids not roll over and die," he said. "Their first two plays go for 80 yards, and they could have thought, 'here we go again,' but they didn't. They stayed in there and fought back."
Indeed, Northern fought back with its first touchdown of the season. Kyle Samson guided the Lights on a lengthy 19-play 82-yard scoring drive that he punctuated with a one-yard score.
"I was just very proud of our offense," Kyle Samson said. "The past three weeks we just couldn't get in the end zone. But once we got that first one on the board, I think it definitely gave us some confidence."
Northern would need that confidence, because it was in for a shootout. Western seemed to answer immediately. Blome found Josh Shrum on a short screen pass and the All-American running back broke several tackles and galloped 60 yards for an apparent touchdown. However, a personal foul on lineman Ben Snipes negated the score. Still, Western got a large chunk of yardage and Shrum found the end zone 10 plays later with a 3-yard scamper.
After finally getting that first touchdown of the season, the Lights couldn't wait to get another thanks to a revitalized passing game that ranks last in the Frontier Conference.
Samson connected with Nick Arnold on a 25-yard completion and followed it up with a 23-yard completion to Todd Nelson to set up Don Saisbury's 3-yard touchdown run. However, Chris Nagel's point after attempt was wide left, leaving the Lights trailing 14-13.
Western (2-2 overall, 2-1 Frontier) tacked on a 37-yard field goal from Zahler to take a 17-13 lead. Northern answered on its third possession of the game. Samson appeared poised to give the Lights the lead. He connected with Saisbury, who made a brilliant one-handed catch for a 55-yard completion that put Northern on the Western 1-yard line. However, a holding penalty negated the long gain. It didn't matter as the duo hooked up again three plays later on a 36-yard touchdown strike. Nagel's PAT gave Northern its first lead of any type this season at 20-17.
"I think we took a step forward," Mark Samson said. "When you think about it, we scored three times in three possessions in the first half and neither team punted."
Unfortunately for Samson, Western would score on all four of its possessions in the first half. Blome connected with Josh Illig for a 21-yard scoring pass with just 1:27 left in the first half, giving the Bulldogs a 24-20 halftime lead.
The second half started out much different than the first with both teams holding the other scoreless for the entire third quarter.
Northern broke the scoreless drought in the fourth quarter, as Nagel cut the lead to 24-23 with a 29-yard field goal.
"Our defense played a little on their heels in the first half," Mark Samson said. "But they really played much better in the second half."
Indeed, Northern's youthful defense slowed Western's offensive attack, limiting it to 78 total yards in the second half. Freshman defensive lineman Tom Claytor came up with a pair of big quarterback sacks of Blome. However, the Bulldogs accumulated a good portion of that 78 yards on one final drive.
Shrum returned a Saisbury punt 38 yards to give Western good field position at the 50-yard line. A double pass play with Mock firing to Thatcher Taylor gave the Bulldogs a gain of 28 yards. A Blome completion to Taylor for 10 yards set up Shrum's six-yard scoring dash to put Western up 30-23. The Bulldogs could have made things even more difficult with the point after, but Northern's Jake Eldredge blocked Zahler's attempt to keep things alive for the Lights and set up Northern's final possession of the game.
"Our defense came together real well," Kyle Samson said. "They put us in a position to win the game."
Unfortunately for the Lights, the only victory would be a moral one, which didn't sit particularly well with Mark Samson after the game.
"It was a good football game, but unfortunately we lost," he said. "I'm not going to be happy about that, I am happy with the improvement. But I wanted that first win."
There was improvement in virtually every aspect of the game for Northern, but the win column. The Lights outgained Western 410 to 383 in total offense. Samson completed 18 of 24 passes for 232 yards. He also rushed for 89 yards on 27 carries.
"That guy's a threat any time he has the ball," Lee said. "He's a nightmare."
Saisbury added 85 yards on the ground while catching seven passes for 97 yards. Arnold added seven catches for 77 yards.
Blome completed 12 of 19 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown. Shrum and Caleb Drinkwalter combined to rush for 103 yards.
"I have to give them a lot of credit, they came to play," Lee said. "They're not down. They're going to be a force to be reckoned with. Mark is doing a great job."
Northern returns to action on Saturday when it travels to Billings to face Rocky Mountain College.
UM-Western 7 17 0 6 - 30
MSU-Northern 7 13 0 3 - 23
UMW - Travis Blome 1 run (Eric Zahler kick), 13:51
MSU-N - Kyle Samson 1 run (Chris Nagel kick), 3:55
UM-W - Josh Shrum 3 run (Zahler kick), 13:49
MSU-N - Don Saisbury 3 run (kick failed), 11:37
UM-W - FG Zahler 37, 7:31
MSU-N - Saisbury 36 pass from Samson (Nagel kick), 2:30
UM-W - Josh Illig 21 pass from Blome (Zahler kick), 1:27
MSU-N - FG Nagel 29, 11:58
UM-W - Shrum 6 run (kick blocked),
First downs 18 25
Passing 15-23-0 18-25-0
Passing yards 301 232
Rushes-yards 29-82 52-178
Total plays-yards 52-383 77-410
Punts-ave. 2-37.0 3-36.3
Fumbles lost 0-0 0-1
Penalties-yards 10-89 5-33
RUSHING - UM-W: Caleb Drinkwalter 10-52, Shrum 13-51, Team 1-(-2), Blome 5-(-19). MSU-N: Samson 27-89, Saisbury 21-85, Cody Nickel 3-7, Todd Nelson 2-4 .
PASSING - UM-W: Blome 12-19-0-222, Dallas Mock 3-4-0-79. MSU-N: Samson 18-24-0-232, Team 0-1-0-0.
RECEIVING - UM-W: Mock 4-93, Shrum 2-42, Cory Creighton 2-39, Thatcher Taylor 2-38. MSU-N: Saisbury 7-97, Nick Arnold 7-77, Nelson 4-28, Danny Wirtzberger 2-16.