Havre Daily News Sports Editor
Mark Samson wants no part of moral victories. In his second year as the Montana State University-Northern head football coach, Samson ranks them up there with dropped passes and missed tackles - unacceptable.
So don't think for a second he is taking much solace in his team's 34-33 loss to the University of Montana-Western Bulldogs on Saturday in Dillon. There is little comfort for just playing a team close.
"From a coach's standpoint, it's very frustrating because it's a game we should have won," Samson said. "It doesn't matter that we played better than last year. There are no moral victories in this program."
The Lights had a chance for a legitimate victory late in the game. Trailing 34-33, the Northern defense was able to get a key stop late in the fourth quarter as Western was trying to run the clock out.
The Bulldogs even helped the cause as freshman punter Brad Hollen unleashed a four-yard shank of a punt to give the Lights solid field position on the Bulldog 49-yard-line with 1:17 remaining. Quarterback Kyle Samson tried to get the Lights the win. However, on fourth-down-and-9, he was leveled by Western linebacker Kawai Curnan to end Northern's victory hopes.
"We were trying to get into field goal position," Samson said. "I thought we had the chances to do it, but we just couldn't make the plays."
But it was countless other plays that the Lights could've made to win the game that also irked Samson. Northern had several opportunities to take leads and ultimately put the Bulldogs away earlier in the game, but mistakes on defense and special teams thwarted those efforts.
The Lights botched a pair of extra points and missed a field goal in the game, all of which would prove costly in the one-point loss. Defensively, the Lights bogged down but were unable to contain several Bulldog scoring drives.
"We'd get them in third and long situations and they always seemed to make just enough yards to keep the drive alive," Samson said. "I don't know if it was the change from playing Dickinson where we focused on the running game to focusing on the pass, but we kind of struggled at times."
Western got on the board immediately, taking a 7-0 lead as quarterback Justin Hartman found Caleb Drinkwalter on a 6-yard scoring strike to cap off a 12-play, 80-yard drive to open the game.
After struggling to establish a lengthy drive, the Lights tied the game on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Kyle Samson to Dan Wirtzberger.
From there the offensive shootout was on. Western answered immediately on its ensuing possession as Seth McLean hauled in a 28-yard touchdown pass on third down to go up 14-0.
Northern tied the game at 14 as Don Saisbury scored on a 3-yard-run with 9:01 remaining in the second quarter. The 10-play drive was highlighted by a 20-yard Saxton Shearer run.
Western continued to have plenty of success against the Lights' defense as the Bulldogs needed just nine plays to go 73 yards and find the end zone. Caleb Drinkwalter scored on a 3-yard plunge to give Western a 21-14 lead.
The Lights were poised to either tie the game or at least cut into the 21-14 lead right before the half. Northern drove the ball down to Western's 10-yard line, but the drive ended scoreless as Chaz Kountz' 29-yard field goal attempt was wide right.
"If I did a better job of calling the plays in that situation, we would have scored right before halftime," Samson said. "Hindsight is 20-20, but I made some bad calls down there."
After not getting the score before the half, the Lights came out and got a score immediately after halftime. They needed just three plays, as Samson connected with Jake Eldridge on a 65-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 21-21.
The Bulldogs answered with a big play of their own later in the quarter. Travis Hartman took an inside screen pass from his brother and broke free for a 65-yard touchdown.
"I think we had five missed tackles on that play," Samson said. "It was a little screen pass that I thought we had defended pretty well. We just didn't make any tackles."
Still, Northern wouldn't go away. The Lights put together a 15-play, 71-yard drive that culminated with a 5-yard Saisbury touchdown run. However, Kountz's kick was no good on the point-after attempt, leaving the Lights trailing 28-27.
Western tried to put the Lights away. Josh Illig hauled in a 52-yard pass from Justin Hartman to set up his 3-yard touchdown reception. However, the Bulldogs had their own kicking problems and Hollen missed the point-after.
The Lights seemed to have the game tied up and ready to force overtime when Kyle Samson guided the Lights 70 yards in 10 plays and cut the lead to one with an 11-yard touchdown scamper.
Down 34-33, Coach Samson played for the tie and sent Kountz out to kick the extra point. This time his kicker never got the chance to even kick the ball. The snap from center was low and bounced to Wirtzberger, who is the Lights holder. Wirtzberger knew the play was botched and picked up the ball and rolled left and lofted a pass towards Saisbury in the end zone. The attempt was knocked down.
"Dan fielded the ball off the bounce, but the timing was all screwed up after that," Samson said. "He did what he was supposed to do."
Kicking woes have plagued the Lights every year since the program's reinstatement, and Samson longs for a day when that will change.
"You're supposed to take point after attempts for granted at the college level," he said. "I have been here for two years and have yet to think it's automatic."
But Samson wasn't about to blame just Kountz for the kicking problems.
"He's only a freshman playing a position that he wasn't even recruited for," Samson said. "We shouldn't have put him in that situation in the first place. If we get some stops, it doesn't come down to that."
Northern rolled up 443 yards of total offense, with 196 yards rushing and 247 yards passing. Kyle Samson completed 19 of 34 passes for 247 yards and rushed for 48 yards. Saisbury had 55 yards rushing on 12 carries and caught five passes for 55 yards. Freshman Saxton Shearer had a career-high 62 yards rushing on just seven carries.
"Saxton really ran the ball well," Coach Samson said. "Donny had a nice game running and catching the ball. Offensively, we're head and shoulders ahead of where we were last year at this time. But you get almost 450 yards of total offense and five touchdowns and you feel like you should win the game."
Western racked up 434 yards of total offense, including 366 yards passing from Hartman. Seth McLean had four catches for 78 yards, while the Frontier's leading receiver Jake Larson had four catches for 69 yards. Travis Hartman caught three passes for 100 yards. Western fumbled the ball three times in the game, but was able to recover all three.
"Defensively, we just gave up big plays at important times," Samson said. "We couldn't get stops when we needed them most."
While Saturday's loss was far from as bad as some of last year's road losses, Samson found little comfort in that thought.
"It's a tough loss to swallow," Coach Samson said. "I still think we are a better football team than they are. Sometimes you have to make your own breaks happen and we didn't do that."
Things don't get any easier for the Lights as they will face top-ranked Carroll College on Saturday in Helena.
MSU-N 7 7 13 6 - 33
UM-W 7 14 7 6 - 34
UM-W - Caleb Drinkwalter 6 pass from Justin Hartman (Brad Hollen kick), 8:15.
MSU-N - Danny Wirtzberger 7 pass from Kyle Samson (Chaz Kountz kick), :38.
UM-W - Seth McLean 23 pass from Hartman (Hollen kick), 13:31.
MSU-N - Don Saisbury 3 run (Kountz kick), 9:01.
UM-W - Drinkwalter 3 run (Hollen kick), 5:07.
MSU-N - Jake Eldridge 65 pass from Samson (Kountz kick), 12:12.
UM-W - Travis Hartman 67 pass from J. Hartman (Hollen kick), 7:49.
MSU-N - Saisbury 5 run (kick failed), 1:03.
UM-W - Josh Illig 3 pass from J. Hartman (kick failed), 9:02.
MSU-N - Samson 11 run (kick/pass failed), 4:21.
First downs 22 15
Rushes-yards 44-196 33-68
Passing yards 247 366
Comp-att-int 19-34-0 18-32-0
Punts-avg. 5-42.8 6-38.5
Punt ret. 4-25 1-4
Kickoff ret 4-105 5-93
Fumbles-lost 2-0 3-0
Penalties-yards 6-46 5-71 I
RUSHING - MSU-N: Saxton Shearer 7-62, Don Saisbury 12-55, Zach Wermers 8-31, Kyle Samson 17-48. UM-W: Caleb Drinkwalter 22-59, Justin Hartman 10-11, Jake Larson 1-(-2).
PASSING - MSU-N: Kyle Samson 19-34-0-247. UM-W: Justin Hartman 18-32-0-366.
RECEIVING - MSU-N: Danny Wirtzberger 5-57, Don Saisbury 5-55, Zach Wermers 3-18, Jake Eldridge 2-72, Clint Herrera 2-27, Nick Arnold 2-18. UM-W: Seth McLean 4-78, Jake Larson 4-69, Travis Hartman 3-100, Josh Illig 3-75, Jeff Schultz 2-32, Caleb Drinkwalter 2-12.