Havre Daily News Sports Editor
The compliments are nice, but in head coach Mark Samson's mind, his team hasn't proven a thing this season. Sure, the Lights are better, but after going 1-10 a year ago, they were bound to be better.
Samson doesn't simply want more from his players, frankly, he expects it.
Northern will host the Rocky Mountain College Battlin' Bears at 1 p.m. on Saturday at Blue Pony Stadium in its first conference home game of the season. According to Samson, the stakes couldn't be higher.
"Honestly, this game might be a turning point in our program," he said. "I know it sounds funny, but really this game is so important."
It seems strange, considering it's a game against an 0-3 Rocky squad and just the 14th game of his tenure. Yet, it isn't about the standings or records to Samson - it's about a mindset. This is a game the Lights should win, and good teams win the games they are supposed to win, particularly at home.
"We've got to have that mentality that we expect to win whenever we step on the field," Samson said. "I know the kids have had a lot of people tell them that they are better this year, but it isn't enough. We have to win the games we are supposed to win."
Of course, Rocky has the same beliefs coming in. The two teams split with each other last season for their only wins, with each winning on their home field. Rocky defeated Northern 24-12 in Billings, while the Lights won 33-6 in Havre.
"I know that Rocky thinks they can beat us," Samson said. "They look at this game as a game they should win. But I believe we're the better football team. It's just a matter of playing like it."
The Bears have come close to earning that first win of the season on a couple of occasions. Two weeks ago, they took Montana Tech to overtime before losing 17-14 on a field goal. Last weekend, the Bears came up just short against Eastern Oregon, falling 22-19.
Northern very easily could have been 2-1 coming into the game. The Lights lost a heartbreaker against Western, when their special teams fell apart in a 34-33 loss. A week ago, Northern played Carroll tougher than many teams have thus far, but still surrendered some costly big plays in a 31-14 loss.
A loss for either team could have a nasty impact psychologically.
"That's why this is so big for us confidence-wise," Samson said. "We've had a great attitude for coming off of two losses. The kids are starting to understand what we need to do and what it takes for us to be a good football team."
One of those things is to rejuvenate the rushing attack. After rushing for more than 284 yards in the first two games, the Lights were held to 97 yards on the ground against Carroll. But it's difficult to believe that the Lights will be the only team that Carroll will hold under 100 yards.
Northern is second in the conference in rushing at 184 yards per game.
"It's very important that we have success running the ball," said Lights tailback Don Saisbury, who leads the conference in all-purpose yardage with 122 yards rushing and 238 yards receiving. "It sets up everything we want to do offensively, especially our passing."
Said Samson: "If we're going to win, we need to get at least 200 yards rushing."
The Bears defense has surrendered 375 yards a game in total offense, with an average 204 yards coming on the ground.
Their leading tackler is former KG standout Roger Larson, who plays in the secondary and has 36 tackles on the season. Teammate Jason Rixford has 35 tackles to date.
Rocky isn't going to just let the Lights run at will. In fact, the Bears' defense will be keying on stopping quarterback Kyle Samson and Saisbury, specifically the option attack.
"They're going to try and stop us from running on the perimeter," Samson said. "But I don't know care where we get the rushing yards at, I just want the rushing yards. We've had some success throwing the ball against them and our passing game is much better this season."
Indeed, Northern is just behind Rocky at 268 yards passing per game. Kyle Samson has completed 54 of 92 passes on the season and five scoring strikes. Saisbury has 19 catches, while receivers Dan Wirtzberger and Nick Arnold have combined for 18 catches on the season.
"Donny and Nick and Dan have done a nice job catching the ball for us," Samson said. "We're a lot more consistent with our passing game, but to be successful in this league you have to run the football."
One of the reasons for the emphasis on the run is to help control the clock and better sustain drives. Against Carroll, Northern was in entirely too many third down and long situations.
"You don't have a whole lot of options when you're third and long," Saisbury said. "We didn't do a very good job of converting on third downs against Carroll. I think we were like two for 11."
No third down conversions equaled a lot of punts and a lot time on the field for the Lights' defense.
Coach Samson doesn't want a repeat performance of the last two weeks. The Northern defense has surrendered 68 points and 996 yards in the last two games. Carroll averaged an eye-popping 7.8 yards per play.
"We have to play better defensively,"
Coach Samson said. "We need some people to step up and make some plays."
Linebacker Kennedy Anderson leads the conference in tackles with 38 in three games. Safety Marc Samson has 33 tackles, while fellow safety Marc McBryan has 29 tackles.
The Lights defense will be a little short-handed as starting outside linebacker Dilan Saisbury will have to sit out of Saturday's game as part of his penalty for being ejected from the Carroll game. Steve Beaty will move into his spot.
Regardless of who is out there, the Lights' defense will be tested by Rocky's "fun-n-gun" offense. The Bears only average 15.7 points per game, but they rack up 342.7 yards per contest, most of it coming through the air. Led by the return of senior quarterback Adam Sanchez, Rocky averages 275 yards passing a game, which is second in the conference.
"They're going to throw it 50 to 60 times a game," Coach Samson said. "They spread you out, throw a bunch a different formations and looks at you and then throw it all over the field."
Sanchez has completed 77 of 134 passes in three games for 825 yards and five touchdowns. Last year, he tore up his knee in spring football and sat out last season with a medical redshirt.
"He doesn't have the mobility he once had," Coach Samson said. "We've got to find a way to get pressure on him. Teams that have put pressure on him have had success."
If Sanchez has time to throw, he has the weapons to hurt teams. Receivers Bobby Coleman, Jason Hagadone and tight end Justin Airola are all good targets. Airola and Hagadone are tied for third in the conference in receptions with 18 catches each. Coleman is a former Bear hoops player that brings an athletic frame and immense jumping ability.
"They've got some good receivers," Coach Samson said. "The tight end is a big ol' kid, who can catch the ball and the basketball player is very athletic."
To most people, the match-up seems fairly even with both teams possessing enough tools to win. Coach Samson hopes playing at home will help his team mentally.
"I'm glad that we have this game at home," he said. "Still, we have to believe that we are the better team. We have to expect to win when we step on the field."
Said Saisbury: "A win would be a big momentum shift for us. It would also prove to people around the state that the first win wasn't a fluke."