Havre Daily News Sports Editor
The Montana State University-Northern football team has proven many things this season. The Lights have proven that they are much better than last year. They have proven that they can play with any team with the conference. They have proven that their first win of the season wasn't a fluke with a win last weekend.
But one thing the Lights haven't proven, at least under head coach Mark Samson, is the ability to win a game on the road.
Northern (2-2) will get another opportunity to prove people wrong on Saturday, when it travels to Butte to face the Montana Tech Orediggers at 1 p.m. at Alumni Coliseum.
In Samson's tenure, the Lights are 0-8 on the road. Last year was brutal, as Northern was outscored 221-33 in road games.
This year, things are much better. The Lights lost a one-point heartberaker to UM-Western in Dillon and played gamely in a 31-14 loss to Carroll College in Helena. However, playing better isn't good enough for Samson.
"Our next step is a road break through," he said. "We've been doing a much better job of preparing and playing on the road. We just have to win."
Of course, it isn't quite that simple. While the Lights have played well in their first two road games, they need to play a little bit better.
"We just have to be a little sharper and a little better on the road to win," Samson said. "We have played pretty well, but we can definitely play better."
The Lights should easily play better than they did last year in Butte. It wouldn't be that difficult, considering Northern lost 61-0 and committed six turnovers in that game.
"Never in my coaching career have I felt so embarassed," Samson said of last year's loss. "It just started to snowball. Everything that could've went wrong, did go wrong."
It's unlikely the Lights will have a repeat of that performance this year. Northern was beyond inexperienced last season at almost every position.
"We had kids that were literally afraid of teams like Tech and Carroll," Samson said. "We're past that stage. I can't blame them really. We were lining up 18- and 19-year-old kids against a lot of older kids last year."
A year older and a year wiser, the Lights head into Butte with very positive aspirations.
"I really think we have a good chance on Saturday," Samson said. "Our defense has had a great week of practice. I feel like we have a good gamegoing in and I think the kids are pretty well prepared."
The Tech offense that Northern will face is a bit of a mystery. The Orediggers will be basically playing their fourth game with Justus Sheets as the quarterback. Sheets took over after senior quarterback Aaron Johnson broke his arm in the second game of the season.
Since Johnson took almost every snap last season and was a savvy senior, there was bound to be a drop-off in offensive production. However, Samson doesn't expect to see anything different from the Digger offense.
"It really isn't any different than what they were trying to do before," Samson said. "The production just hasn't been as good without Johnson."
That doesn't mean it won't change.
"Every time Sheets plays another game he gets better and more comfortable," Samson said. "This is fourth game he will start. He knows he's the starter now and I think he is going to play better, especially at home."
Even if Sheets' play is improved, still expect to see a healthy dose of the Tech ground game led by running backs Josh Johnson, Teague Egan and Corey Warner.
"I still think they are going to come out and try to run it down our throats," Samson said. "They know they aren't going to score 40 points on teams, so they would rather control the clock with the ground game and let their defense shut you down."
It's sound philosophy, considering Johnson and Egan are second and third in the conference in rushing, combining for 132 yards per game. The Diggers are averaging 182 yards rushing per game, but just 137 yards passing per game, which is the worst in the conference.
Northern's defense has had its best success against run-oriented attacks. The Lights slowed down ground-heavy Dickinson State for their first win of the season.
"I think our defense feels more confident going against running teams," Samson said. "It works more into our favor with our strengths."
Tech will still throw at least 15 times a game. Sheets will choose from receivers Brian Styck and Kris Anderson and tight end Kent Kansala for his targets.
"Tech is still throwing around 15 times a game, but the difference is Johnson would complete 11 or 12 of them," Samson said.
The Diggers' strength lies in a defense that returns all but two starters from last season. Led by linemen Corey Edmundson, linebacker J.J. Perino and defensive backs Adam Cotton and Tyler Muzzana, the unit is a veteran group that plays very physical football. Tech is holding teams to 15.2 points and 344 yards of offense per game.
"They play basically a 4-2 with a lot of cover three and man free," Samson said. "They have some big guys up front and their linebackers are big."
It should be a good match-up with a Northern offense that is second in the conference in total offense at 325.4 yards per game and third in scoring at 20.0 points per game.
"We should be able to move the ball against them," Samson said. "We had kind of toned back some of the audibles for the offense and for Kyle (Samson) the last few weeks. But we've added some more reads and sight checks for this weekend."
Northern has shown solid balance this season on offense. The Lights average 134 yards rushing and 190 yards passing. Kyle Samson has improved his passer rating to a solid 146.4 and is completing 60 percent of his passes.
"Our passing game is much more effective," Coach Samson said. "It's made us a lot more unpredictable."
Samson has a pretty simple recipe for success - 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing.
"If we can do that, we're going to be pretty tough to beat," Samson said. "We just have to be more consistent throughout the game. We can't go two or three drives without moving the ball, because Tech is going to try and limit our offensive possessions."
Despite his hopes for a win, Samson knows that a win at Alumni Coliseum is going to take a near-perfect performance. Because teams don't just breeze in, grab a win and breeze on out.
"It's never easy playing on the road," he said. "We still have a lot of kids that are going to be playing for the first time in that stadium. But I know we're a better team than the one that went in there last year."
Northern and Montana Tech will kick off at 1 p.m. The game can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM.