By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsemail@example.com
To Montana State University-Northern head football coach Mark Samson, the first quarter of Saturday's homecoming game with Montana Tech seemed eerily familiar to the Lights' first meeting with the Orediggers back on Sept. 18.
The Lights struggled with key turnovers at critical times in the earlier contest. Once again, Northern was haunted by the same mistakes on a blustery Saturday at Blue Pony Stadium, as the No. 13 ranked Orediggers raced to a 21-0 first quarter lead, eventually spoiling the Lights' homecoming party 48-22.
"The game started off just the way it did in Butte," Samson said. "The early turnovers really hurt us. You just can't put yourself in a 21-0 hole like that."
The bright spot on Saturday was that the Lights' offense outperformed Tech in almost every phase of the game. Northern took the opening kickoff and drove the ball all the way to the Tech 35-yard line before the drive stalled. That is precisely where the Orediggers' early offensive onslaught got going. It took just five plays for the Orediggers to move the ball from their own 35-yard line to the MSU-Northern 33. From there quarterback Aaron Johnson found Brandon Wood in the end zone. Johnson's pass was deflected by cornerback Marc Samson, but Wood was able to corral the ball for a 7-0 Tech lead.
On the Lights' next possession, running back Cody Nickel fumbled the ball on first down and Tech recovered. A 19-yard Johnson scamper turned the first turnover of the game into points and a 14-0 lead.
Things stayed bad for the Lights on their next possession. After a three-and-out, Tech's Art Hustad blocked Don Saisbury's attempted punt, and Johnson hooked up with Wood three plays later for Tech's third score in less than six minutes.
To finish the first quarter, the Lights coughed up a Tech punt with under a minute left. The Orediggers turned that miscue into seven more points. As the second quarter got under way, Johnson hit Corey Edmundson from four yards out.
"Those kind of mistakes really hurt any football team," Samson said of the first quarter turnovers. "But the trouble with our team sometimes is that we are such a young team and when things like that happen our kids have a tough time getting back up.
"But to their credit that is exactly what they did," Samson added. "I think it was big that we were able to get a touchdown in the second quarter and the kids felt like they were back in the game. I think that carried over into the second half."
Indeed, the Lights did manage to get on the board at the 11:15 mark of the second period, when quarterback Kyle Samson hooked up with Jake Eldridge for a 29-yard touchdown. Tech tacked on a late touchdown just before the half to lead 35-7.
The Orediggers opened the second half with the ball and tried to put the game away as Corey Warner scored from 1 yard out to up the lead 41-7. But the Lights showed their resilience and also flashes of a strong offense. Samson directed back-to-back scoring drives, both resulting in quarterback keepers for touchdowns to pull the Lights to within 19 points at 41-22.
After Samson's second TD run, the Lights were in position to continue their comeback as they forced Tech to punt late in the third period. But Northern was flagged for a roughing the kicker penalty and two personal fouls for unsportsmanlike conduct later in the game that seemingly stalled any hopes of a comeback.
"That was a tough situation and those were crucial penalties," Samson said. "We seemed to have gotten our offense going a little bit and had some momentum. When you're trying to come back like that, you just can't have mistakes like those."
Despite the difficulties with the penalties in the second half and the early turnovers, the Lights' offense had a very good day moving the football. Northern outgained Tech 421 to 392 in total offense, while running 11 fewer offensive plays. The Lights also picked up more first downs on the day. Samson had a strong statistical day, as he threw for 229 yards and rushed for 160 yards on 22 carries. However, the difference in the game was turnovers as the Lights lost two fumbles and Samson threw two picks on the afternoon. Tech committed no turnovers.
Another key difference in the game came on the ground, where Tech was able to manage the game and time of possession. While Johnson threw three TDs, the Orediggers outgained the Lights 284 to 192 in rushing offense and dominated the time of possession. Tech had two 100-yard rushers. Tanner Egan gained 109 yards on 22 carries and Corey Warner racked up 106 yards on just 11 carries.
"The turnovers early in the game were a big factor," Samson said. "I think the game could have been a lot different if we would have taken better care of the ball in the first quarter.
"The encouraging thing is that our offense had some very good moments against a very physical defense," he added. "I also think the kids played hard right to the end. We got down early and they never quit playing. That is always a good sign with a young team like we have."
The win keeps Montana Tech (5-1, 7-2) in first place in the Frontier Conference standings. The Lights are now 0-9 and they will look to pick up their first win of the Samson era when they travel to UM-Western on Saturday.
Montana Tech 21 14 6 7 - 48
MSU-Northern 0 7 15 0 - 22
MT - Brandon Wood 34 pass from Aaron Johnson (Dan Kleckner kick), 8:17
MT - Johnson 19 run (Kleckner kick) 6:45
MT - Wood 6 pass from Johnson (Kleckner kick), 3:56
MT - Corey Edmundson 4 pass from Johnson (Kleckner kick), 13:09
MSU-N - Jake Eldridge 29 pass from Kyle Samson (Chris Nagel kick), 11:13
MT - Adam Cotton 3 run (Kleckner kick), 0:52
MT - Corey Warner 1 run (kick failed), 12:21
MSU-N - Samson 19 run (Nagel kick), 9:27
MSU-N - Samson 4 run (Don Saisbury from Samson), 1:13
MT - Warner 19 run (Kleckner kick), 5:46
First downs 23 21
Rushes-yards 56-284 34-192
Passing 10-18-0 16-29-2
Passing yards 108 229
Total plays-yards 74-392 63-421
Punts-ave. 2-41.0 3-29.0
Fumbles-lost 2-0 3-2
Penalties-yards 4-24 10-9
RUSHING - Montana Tech, Tanner Egan 24-109, Warner 11-106, Johnson 9-33, Cotton 6-15, Brian Styck 1-12, Jens Jensen 1-7, Kevin Dighans 2-6, Levi Briese 1-5, Kris Anderson 1-(-9). MSU-Northern, Samson 22-160, Saisbury 8-24, Cody Nickel 4-8.
PASSING - Montana Tech, Johnson 20-18-0-108. MSU-Northern, Samson 16-29-2-229.
RECEIVING - Montana Tech, Anderson 3-22, Wood 2-40, Egan 2-29, Styck 1-11, Edmundson 1-4, Dighans 1-2. MSU-Northern, Danny Wirtzberger 4-46, Nick Arnold 4-45, Clint Herrera 3-38, Cody Nickel 2-28, Saisbury 1-34, Eldridge 1-29, Todd Nelson 1-9.