Havre Daily News Sports Editor
After perhaps the biggest win since Montana State University-Northern reinstated football, head coach Mark Samson celebrated for about 32 minutes before starting to think about this Saturday's Frontier Conference opener against the University of Montana-Western in Dillon.
"To be a great team you have to prove that you can win on the road," Samson said minutes after the game. "We haven't done that yet. We have to face a very tough team in Western next week."
So much for savoring the fruits of victory. Actually, Samson enjoyed the big win, but a road win against the 0-2 Bulldogs would be much bigger and sweeter for him.
"Getting a conference win on the road is much more important than the win against Dickinson," Samson said. "To get a conference road win against a good Western team would be so big for this team."
It won't be an easy task for the Lights, considering they have never won a road game under Samson. In fact, the Lights weren't even close. They were outscored 221 to 33 in six road losses last season. That's an average 36.8 points to 5.5 points per game - hardly numbers to be happy with.
Northern had a bad habit of coming out flat and not playing well early on in road games. The slow starts usually led to huge deficits that the Lights simply couldn't overcome. After a year of struggling on the road, Samson hopes his young team will be more prepared than last season.
"I think we're going to be a little more mature coming into these games," Samson said. "They understand how difficult it is to win on the road because they experienced it."
While there are no easy road games in the Frontier Conference, Samson said there is something about playing at Western that makes it difficult.
"I don't know what it is about playing in Dillon, but its always tough," he said. "There is just something about that place that makes people struggle."
Northern can't afford to have its typical road struggles on Saturday. The Bulldogs are bound to be a bit cranky after starting off the season with two tough losses. Western opened the season with a disappointing 40-24 loss to Montana Tech in Butte. Last weekend, the Bulldogs were spanked by NCAA Division II Central Washington University 56-0.
"They're a pretty darned good 0-2 team," Samson said. "They are going to be fired up. It's their home opener and it has to be a game they feel they can win. When you're 0-2, you don't overlook anyone, no matter how bad they play on the road."
There may not be many more talented 0-2 teams in all of NAIA than the Bulldogs. Western came into the season ranked 16th in NAIA. However replacing a slew of graduated starters, particularly on defense, has been a little more difficult than predicted.
The Bulldogs graduated seven starters from last year's defense, including the entire defensive line and a pair of linebackers.
The defensive front of tackles Jereme Hess and Ruley Stingley and defensive ends Nick Rewerts and Guy Silvernale are also gone.
Hess, Stingley and Rewerts finished 1-2-3 in the conference in sacks. The trio combined for 32 sacks and 57 tackles for loss.
"You just don't step up and replace players like that," Samson said. "Their defensive line was so solid last season."
Western is using University of Montana transfer Stephen O'Neal, Bowling Green transfer Bryan Gardner and senior Kama McKeague to fill the holes left to graduation.
Also gone is basically the entire linebacking crew, at least for this weekend. Bryan Arntson (107 tackles, 4 sacks, 9 tackles for loss) and Zach Tune (102 tackles, 4 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss) both graduated, while returning all-conference linebacker Eric Stoverud, who led the Bulldogs with 112 tackles, is ineligible as of press time and probably won't play this weekend.
Kawai Curran did make a couple of starts last season and is back and Ryan Tuttle will also start at linebacker.
"Hopefully, we are able to do some things with our running game," Samson said. "Last year, we weren't able to do much between the tackles against them."
The secondary, which lost all-conference safety Jake Shrum and cornerback Enoch McKeague, returns the most experience with senior all-conference safety Nick Prinzing returning along with senior cornerback Ryan Keltz.
The Bulldogs' defense has shown its inexperience, surrendering 96 points and 799 yards of total offense in two games.
Northern's offense was far from perfect against DSU. The Lights did make plays when needed. Samson is looking for a little better execution early on.
"We need to come out a little crisper offensively," Samson said. "We need to move the ball a little more consistently in the first quarter and hopefully get a score. If we can get an early score, it takes so much pressure off you."
The Bulldogs' offense also lost plenty of players from last year's squad that ranked third in the conference in scoring 21.5 points per game and third in total offense at 316.5 yards per game.
Gone is all-conference running back Josh Shrum, who led the Frontier in all-purpose yards at 121.8 per game. Shrum also led the league in scoring with 11 touchdowns. The receiving corp took a hit as all-conference wide receiver Dallas Mock and two-year starter T Artis graduated. The Bulldogs also lost veteran offensive linemen Mike Schmidt and Ben Snipes.
Still, the Bulldogs return some quality players and have added some talent.
Leading the list is receiver Jake Larson. The Butte native was a first-team all-conference performer two years ago. He then tried to transfer up to the University of Montana a year ago. But Larson is back in Dillon and made his presence known immediately.
He had a monster game in the season opener against Tech with 12 catches for 230 yards and two touchdowns.
"We have to do some different things with Jake Larson," Samson said. "We can't let him go crazy against us."
Western also has Josh Illig returning to the lineup, while senior Seth McLean and sophomore Jeff Schultz will also see time.
Who exactly will be throwing to Larson and company still remains to be seen.
The Bulldogs have been using the quarterbacking duo of Travis Blome and Justin Hartman so far this season.
Blome returns from a solid sophomore year in which he threw for 2,050 yards and 14 touchdowns. Hartman was a highly touted quarterback out of CMR. He started his career at the University of Montana, but transferred to Dillon last spring.
The duo has played about equal time with comparable success. Blome has completed 13 of 29 passes for 180 yards on the season. He's also thrown three interceptions so far. Hartman has completed 21 of 33 passes for 242 yards with an interception. Hartman may see more time this weekend, after taking the majority of snaps in the last game.
"They're really isn't much difference between the two," Samson said. "Blome has more experience in the system and Hartman is a bigger kid. They really don't do anything different offensively for either."
That means Western will use the spread offense that head coach Tommy Lee used when he was offensive coordinator under Don Read at the University of Montana. There will be plenty of shotgun looks with short passes, receiver screens and crossing patterns underneath.
"We need to get some sort of a pass rush against them," Samson said. "Last year, we didn't get any type of pressure on Blome. We can't let them sit back there and pick us apart."
Northern will also play more of a nickel look in the secondary with true freshman Khalin Anderson slated to see plenty of time in the secondary. Cornerback Kyle Elliott, who went down last weekend with a knee injury, will still play, as will defensive end Mason Ophus, who missed the first game with a knee injury.
"We need to come out ready to play," Samson said. "You can't be flat early on and expect to win on the road. You can get away with it at home sometimes, but not on the road. I think last week proved to the kids that they can play with anybody. It's just a matter of executing."
The Bulldogs and Lights will kick off at 1 p.m. with radio coverage on 92.5 KPQX-FM and at www.msun.edu/athletics.