By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Montana State University-Northern football team is willing to travel the extra mile to get its first win of the season. Or in this case, the extra 800 miles
The Lights will make the long trip to La Grande, Ore., in search of that elusive first victory of the season. They will take on the Eastern Oregon Mountaineers Saturday at 2 p.m. at EOU's Community Stadium.
It is the first of many trips that Frontier Conference teams will be making to La Grande, as the Mountaineers will officially join the conference next season.
It's not an easy trip, but head coach Mark Samson is trying to make it as easy as possible for his players.
"We're going to try and break it up as much as we can," Samson said on Wednesday. "It's a pretty simple drive and the kids won't be on the bus a lot."
Samson and the Lights left Thursday afternoon and practiced later in the evening in Frenchtown, before staying in Spokane. Today, Northern will travel to Medford, Ore. To practice and be in La Grande early this evening for more preparation and taking a look at Community Stadium.
Samson is trying just about anything to change the way his team has played on the road this season.
From the very beginning of the season, the Lights have not been a very good team away from Blue Pony Stadium. A lack of focus and execution has led to a rash of mistakes in Northern's three road games, leading to lopsided losses at Dickinson State, Rocky Mountain College and Montana Tech.
"We need to do something, because we haven't been very good on the road," Samson said. "We weren't ready to play at Dickinson, I thought we were a little better at Tech, but against Rocky we came out flatter than a pancake."
If the Lights come out flat against Eastern, they could end up like a pancake The Mountaineers come into Saturday's game a little wounded after losing three straight games, but they are still a very dangerous team.
Eastern dropped games to three quality opponents: Montana Tech, Whitworth College and NCAA Division II Central Washington in the last three weeks.
However, the recent adversity is nothing compared to what the Mountaineers have been dealing with all season. Head coach Jim Fenwick has taken a leave of absence from the team. He was diagnosed with leukemia in April, and received a bone marrow transplant from his son, Casey, in July. Defensive coordinator Travis Baker has been the interim coach for this season.
Besides the losses, the Mountaineers have also lost some players to injury. Starting middle linebacker Davin Clark broke his leg against Tech.
EOU was also missing other starters in its lineup last week. However, most of them appear to be back for the game against Northern - most notably a familiar name to football fans in Montana.
Senior cornerback Vernon Smith transferred to Eastern after leaving the University of Montana last spring amid problems stemming from brandishing a gun during an argument
Smith made his presence felt in his first game as a Mountaineer. He intercepted three passes, returning two for touchdowns. He also had five tackles, three pass deflections and a sack in Eastern's 45-14 win over Menlo College.
Smith missed the last game with an injury, but is supposed to play on Saturday, much to Samson's chagrin.
'Their defense isn't quite as athletic or big as Southern Oregon," he said. "Now with Vernon playing, that's a different story. He's a difference maker. He was all-conference in the Big Sky and he can change the game by himself."
As a whole, Eastern Oregon's defense is giving up an average of 22.6 points and 379 yards of total offense each game.
Besides Smith, the Mountaineers are led by linebacker Nick Hannah, who moved from outside linebacker, to Clark's spot inside, and leads the team with 69 tackles and five tackles for loss. Linebacker Mark Persche, linebacker Bubba Strong and defensive end Jason Flowers also contribute heavily.
Offensively, Eastern has been somewhat inconsistent. The Mountaineers have scored nine touchdowns on the season and are averaging 22.8 points per game.
"They're kind of a hard team to figure out offensively," Samson said. "They run a lot of different stuff out of different formations But they're kind of like most teams nowadays. They don't follow that whole pass-happy craze. They are going to try and establish the run."
EOU is averaging 135 yards per game on the ground, with a large portion coming from junior tailback Justin Asterlund (5-8, 175), who averages 96.6 yards rushing per game. Backup tailback Damien Johnson (5-10, 205) is rushing for 39.2 yards per game.
While the rushing game is solid, the Mountaineer's passing game hasn't been overwhelming. Quarterback Scott Jensen is throwing for 129.6 yard per game, but has thrown just three touchdowns this season.
"Their offense is still a little scary, because they do so many different things and give you so many different looks," Samson said.
Fortunately, the Lights' defense has been playing pretty well in the last two and a half games.
"The defense has really played well since the second half of the Western game," Samson said. "They've kept us in ball games and given us chances for us to win. That's all I can ask for."
Samson is calling on his offense to keep up its end. Northern is averaging 275 yards per game in total offense. However, it hasn't been able to convert on key third-down situations or consistently break plays longer than 10 yards.
"We've had a lot of three and outs the last few weeks," Samson said. "We need to get better at executing. We still need some people to step up an make some big plays for us."
Samson was pleased with his team's effort all week in practice, and said his kids aren't about to give up on the season. A win would definitely be a nice reward for the continual effort.
"It's a long trip for a game, but it will be worth it if we get a win," Samson said. "I know we're capable. We just need to put together a complete game."
Northern and EOU will kick off at 2 p.m. and can be heard locall on 92.5 KPQX-FM or on web cast at www.msun.edu/athletics.