By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
With a 0-9 record, many teams could be guilty of overlooking the Montana State University-Northern football team at this point in the season.
However as head coach Mark Samson is quick to point out, playing a winless team is really a no-win situation for opponents.
"Nobody wants to be the first team that loses to us," Samson said. "That's pretty good motivation for most teams. They are going to play to win, or at least not to lose."
Even the vaunted UM-Western Bulldogs have some incentive in Saturday's game in Dillon. A little incentive may be all the Bulldogs have at this point in the season, since their postseason hopes may have vanished in last week's 34-0 loss to Southern Utah University.
"We were trying to figure it out this week," Samson said. "But with the way the conference tiebreakers are set up, I don't think there is any way they can win the conference."
Without getting the Frontier's automatic bid, UM-Western would be hard pressed to make it into the 16-team NAIA playoffs with four losses on its record.
"You really don't know how they are going to react if they aren't in it," Samson said. "They are pretty banged up from playing Southern Utah and they will be missing some offensive linemen. But I'm not expecting a bunch of guys to go lay down on the field not caring."
If anything, Western may be out to prove itself after sneaking out of Havre with a 30-23 victory on Sept. 25.
Northern had one of its best opportunities for win this season come up short when Bulldog cornerback Ryan Keltz sacked Lights quarterback Kyle Samson on fourth and goal from the 7-yard line.
However, the Lights seem to be a completely different team on the road. So far this year, Northern has played some of its worst football on the road, which Samson believes stems from his team's inexperience.
"It's a mental thing," Samson said. "I swear some of our kids have that deer in head lights look when we step out on a different field. What they have to remember is that we're just playing another football game in a different arena."
One of the Lights' biggest problems in their road losses has been falling behind early in games. The Lights don't dig themselves into holes, they dig themselves into canyons.
"We cannot allow ourselves to get way behind early like we do every road game," Samson said.
It won't be easy against a solid Western offense led by All-American running back Josh Shrum and rapidly improving quarterback Travis Blome.
"Shrum is a good player," Samson said. "Blome is steady. They're not throwing the ball as often as in the past, but they're still dangerous. They have good receivers in T Artis and Dallas Mock. And even though they have some people missing, their offensive line is still big enough to block out what little sun there is in Dillon."
Northern's defense has steadily improved with each week, but Samson was a little disappointed in its performance early last week.
"I thought we were kind of on our heels early on against Tech," he said. "We didn't get after people like we've done in the past few games."
The Lights can't afford to do that against Western. Besides defense, Northern must put together a consistent offense from the start.
There were flashes of consistency against Montana Tech. Northern racked up 421 yards of total offense and 22 points. However, silly penalties and mistakes cost them four solid scoring opportunities.
Kyle Samson spearheaded the attack, rushing for 160 yards and two touchdowns and passing for 229 and another score. For his efforts, he was not only the Frontier Conference, but the NAIA national player of the week.
"Our offense was pretty good last weekend," Mark Samson said. "We had our best day in terms of yardage. But we still committed some dumb penalties and made some turnovers that hurt us."
It seems to Samson that his team plays much better, much more relaxed offensively after it scores its first touchdown.
"We need to get some scores early," he said. "Once we get that first touchdown there is a weight lifted off this team. We just relax and play much looser."
While Western may be struggling with motivation, Northern's players don't seem to be.
"That's one thing about our kids, they play hard," Samson said "We could have easily folded up the tents last week against Tech, but we didn't. We stayed there and fought and played hard."
Northern and Western will kick off at 1 p.m. The game can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM.