Havre Daily News Sports Editor
Saturday afternoon the Montana State University-Northern Lights football team will step out of conference when it hosts the Eastern Oregon Mountaineers at 1 p.m. at Blue Pony Stadium. Sort of.
The Mountaineers are a soon-to-be member of the Frontier Conference - they join the league in 2006 - and they have already played three conference teams this season. So, even though the game will not count on the Lights' conference record, MSU-Northern head coach Mark Samson is treating Saturday's tilt with the No. 17 Mountaineers like another important Frontier Conference clash.
”Eastern Oregon is a really good football team,“ Samson said. ”And they are going to be a strong addition to our conference. So we are preparing for them just like we would for any other conference game. We expect them to come in here and play very well on Saturday.“
If anybody has doubts about whether the Mountaineers (3-1) can play in the rugged Frontier Conference, just ask Montana Tech and Rocky Mountain College. Eastern has already knocked off both schools this season. In fact, Eastern's only loss this season came at the hands of top-ranked and three-time defending NAIA national champion Carroll College.
To validate the Mountaineers even more, they drubbed the Lights 35-8 last season in La Grande, Ore. Now the Mountaineers make the long trek to Havre for a rematch of what could potentially be a very intense rivalry in the future. Eastern returns most of its impact players from a year ago to boot.
”What really jumps out at you about them is they are very athletic,“ Samson said. ”Their skill players are very good and they have a very experienced quarterback. They also have a big offensive line and they are just a very explosive offensive football team.
”On defense, they are also very athletic and quick,“ he added. ”I am sure they are very prepared to come here and do some things to try to take Kyle (Samson) out of the game.
Obviously, coach Samson has done his share of homework on the Mountaineers. Offensively, Eastern boasts a bevy of talented players led by senior quarterback Scott Jensen and senior tailback Tyronne Gross. Gross racked up almost 200 yards rushing in Eastern's last win two weeks ago.
Jensen also has a trio of speedy wide receivers to throw to in Devin Smith, Jomo Wilson and Deandre Amos. All three have had 100-plus-yard games.
Defensively, the Mountaineers have a pair of standout tacklers led by hard-hitting safety Sean McMurray. McMurray leads Eastern in tackles and interceptions. Linebacker Rick Bordon is also a standout player for the Mountaineer defense.
”A big key to this game will be to take care of the football,“ Samson said. ”Their offense can hurt you in a lot of ways, so we have to go out there and limit their possessions.
”That means rushing the football well,“ he added. ”And not turning the ball over and giving them extra chances.“
Samson would also like his defense to give him more of what it did in a 37-19 thrashing of the University of Montana- Western last Saturday. The Lights' defense caused Western to turn the ball over six times, including two that went for touchdowns. Northern's front seven also harassed Western quarterback Travis Blome all day, registering four sacks.
”Defensively, we just have to be very well prepared and disciplined,“ Samson said. ”They are a good offensive team, but our defense is playing well right now.“
As good as the Mountaineers' offense is, the Lights (3-3) are getting better as the season goes along. Against Western, Northern gained more than 400 yards of total offense and rushed for more than 200 yards. Kyle Samson was his usual dazzling self, rushing for 71 yards and throwing for 250 yards. His performance earned him Frontier Conference player of the week honors.
Samson is also climbing the Frontier Conference leaderboard in both rushing and passing statistics. The sophomore quarterback is now fourth in the league in rushing this season, and second in most passing categories behind Carroll's Tyler Emmert.
”One of the nice things right now is that we're finally pretty healthy,“ coach Samson said. ”We're battling a little bit of the flu but other than that we're at full strength for the most part.
”Clint Herrera's foot is doing a lot better, and we're looking to get him a lot more involved in the offense again,“ he added.
The Lights also got a big boost from its kicking and return game last week. Chaz Kountz connected on a 25-yard field goal, and sophomore Marc Samson had a huge day returning punts.
Now coach Samson wants to see his team build on the momentum that it started to gain in last week's win.
”We played well last week and we need to build on what we did,“ Samson said. ”This is a very good football team coming in here and they are nationally ranked.
”We need to step up and play well again,“ he added. ”It would be another big step for this program to beat another ranked team.“
The Lights and Mountaineers will kick off at 1 p.m. Saturday at Blue Pony Stadium in Havre. The game can be heard locally on 92.5 KPQX-FM.