By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
To be fair, no team in NAIA has had a tougher two weeks than the Montana State University-Northern football team.
The Lights are coming off of two weeks in which they faced the No. 5 and No. 1 teams in the nation, resulting in a pair of losses.
Thankfully, this week, Northern's streak of playing teams ranked in the top five, or ranked at all, ends Saturday when they travel to Butte to face Montana Tech at 1 p.m.
"Tech isn't like Carroll or Dickinson State," said head coach Mark Samson "They aren't quite as fast or quite as physical."
But don't think for a second that Saturday's game against the Orediggers is going to be easy. It will be anything but.
"They are still a very good football team with plenty of success and tradition," Samson said. "They probably have plenty of confidence after watching the tapes of our first two games."
Indeed, Northern's first two games were far from impressive. The Lights have been outscored 99 to 3 in two very decisive losses.
"We need to find a way to score some touchdowns," Samson said. "I think if we can get that first one, we can relax a little on offense."
Perhaps the good news for Samson, is that Northern's only win last season, came against the Diggers in Butte.
Despite being the last team the Lights defeated, the Diggers are a much different team from that loss.
Last year, Tech was absolutely decimated by injuries, losing a host of players, including quarterback Aaron Johnson, running back Josh Johnson (no relation), defensive end Jay Deal and several other key players.
This year's squad is much healthier than last, with Johnson and Johnson back to lead the offense.
"It's great to have them all back," said longtime Tech head coach Bob Green. "Aaron has been throwing the ball well and Josh had a fantastic game against Jamestown."
Indeed, Aaron Johnson completed 18 for 22 passes for 218 yards, while throwing for a touchdown and rushing for another. Josh Johnson rushed for 86 yards, 80 of them in first half, in the 31-7 win over Jamestown.
"I told our kids I wanted to play our first game, like it wasn't our first game of he season," Green said. "And for the most part we did that. We avoided procedure penalties and didn't make too many mistakes."
While the first game was all smiles, Tech's second game wasn't quite as joyous. The Diggers got hammered 56-3 by North Dakota State. Although it was a nonconference game against an NCAA Division II opponent, the loss came with a price.
Junior wide receiver Koa Bartlett suffered a severely broken leg, requiring immediate surgery, and is out for the season. Bartlett was Tech's best deep threat and a dangerous kick return threat.
"It hurts us," Green said. "Koa is an outstanding player and an outstanding person. We're just going to have some young kids step up and contribute."
Junior Kris Anderson's role will increase even more. Anderson leads the conference with 13 catches on the season.
Bryan Styck will see his repetitions increase, while backup running back Corey Warner may line up more outside. Because of the multitude of injuries from last year, Tech does have plenty of younger players with experience.
"Maybe that is the silver lining from last year," Green said. "Last year made us better this year because we got some guys game experience."
While the depth chart is different from last year, Tech offensive strategy isn't. It hasn't been much different since Green started coaching there 16 years ago.
"We're going to spread the ball around to different people," Green said. "And we're going to run the ball. At Montana Tech, we run the football. We believe in constant improvement, not constant change."
It's a strategy that seems logical considering Northern's performance last weekend against Carroll College. The Saints rolled up 378 yards rushing against a banged up Lights' defense that hasn't gotten any healthier this week.
Starting linebacker Brett Finneman and starting cornerback Jake Eldredge are both suffering from relatively serious injuries. Finneman is battling a bad knee, while Eldredge has had some complications with a disc in his neck. Both had MRIs this week and their status will most likely be a game-time decision.
"We'll find out their status when we get on the bus to go to Butte," Samson said. "If we don't have them that really hurts because we are down to the bare minimum on defense."
Unfortunately Samson can't blame the Lights' touchdownless offense on injuries, rather inconsistency.
Northern has imploded during drives - committing silly penalties, missing assignments and turning the ball over. Another factor hurting the Lights offense is a lack of a passing attack. The Lights have accumulated just 158 yards in passing in two games.
"If we don't do something with our passing game, we'll never win a game," Samson said. "We've worked very hard this week and changed some things up."
Specifically, Samson will keep his son, Kyle, in the pocket more. In the past weeks, most of Northern's pass plays have consisted of Kyle Samson rolling out of the pocket. However, teams loaded up coverages to that side of the field. This week, Mark Samson will try and keep his son in the pocket to hopefully open up the passing and take some pressure off his ground game.
"We have to do something with our passing, or teams are just going to line up eight guys in the box every game until we do," Mark Samson said. "We put in some new stuff this week, things that worked when Kyle was quarterbacking at Capital. They're plays he's comfortable with and we've had success with."
Despite the rough first two weeks, Samson doesn't believe his team's attitude is soured.
"Even after getting our butts kicked the first two weeks, the kids still have a good attitude," he said. "We're going to keep plugging away and try to get better. The kids are going to work through this."
Northern and Tech will kick off at 1 p.m. and can be heard locally on 92.5 KPQX-FM.