By Bill Bighaus
Montana State University-Northern won one on the road Saturday afternoon against Rocky Mountain College - and it was quite a football milestone.
The Lights, in beating the Bears 21-9 at Herb Klindt Field, prevailed in a game away from Havre for the first time in more than two years, and the victory in Billings was Northern's first since 1968.
“This was a big step for us,” sophomore running back Don Saisbury, who rushed for three touchdowns for the Lights, said of the road breakthrough. “What a monkey that's been.”
Northern, 3-4 in the Frontier Conference and 5-4 overall, is now on the verge of tying its winningest season since 1968. The Lights didn't field a football team from 1972 to 1999 - and their last win in Billings was a 34-19 decision on Oct. 19, 1968.
The Lights, who trailed 9-6 at halftime, took the lead for good, 14-9, on a 1-yard run by Saisbury with 5:05 left in the third quarter and a two-point pass conversion from Kyle Samson to Danny Wirtzberger.
Northern, which last won on the road at Montana Tech 29-22 on Sept. 27, 2003, added an insurance TD on another 1-yard run by Saisbury with 8:37 to go in the fourth quarter.
“We got over another hump in the program, which is important for us,” said Northern coach Mark Samson. “(Rocky head coach) David (Reeves) and I were both kind of laughing at the beginning of the game because neither one of us had won a road game in two years.”
Saisbury's last touchdown, however, was a controversial one - and Reeves wasn't laughing in the end.
Rocky, now 1-5 in league and 1-8 overall, appeared to stop Northern on a fourth-and-goal play from the 2 when Bears lineman Derek Duncan tackled quarterback Samson in the backfield for a 5-yard loss.
The Bears, though, were called for a hold away from the play - and the Lights cashed in on the very next snap with the short scoring run by the 228-pound Saisbury.
“I was pretty upset fourth and two, that's a game-changer,” Reeves said of the call in the end zone against a Rocky defensive back. “That changed the game from a great stand and everyone's got the emotion going to ‘oh, no.' And to have that (flag) on a little edge deal when the whole game's been going that way .”
Reeves said he plans to scrutinize the call when he views the game film.
“I just hate to see those critical calls that turn a one-score into a two-score game, and all of a sudden you're pressing for everything,” he said. “If it's the right call, it's the right call. If it's not, it's sad that it came down to that.”
Both teams gave up ground grudgingly, with Saisbury's scoring runs covering 2, 1 and 1 yard. He rushed 12 times for 53 yards and caught four passes for 31 more.
“It was tight,” Saisbury said of the tussle. “There was a lot of smack-talking out there and a lot of people playing hard. Their defense played real tough. We had to fight to get our yardage. Even on those touchdowns we had to fight.
“I've got to give credit to (Rocky's defense), but our offensive line stepped up when we needed them,” Saisbury added. “The team just decided we wanted to get it done - and we got it done.”
Saisbury's heroics aside, Rocky also hurt itself with five turnovers - three interceptions and two lost fumbles.
During the first half, the Bears had drives stall out at the Northern 1, 11 and 3-yard lines. Rocky's Tyler Cano salvaged the marches with field goals covering 18, 28 and 20 yards.
“Obviously in the red zone we should have been a little better,” said Reeves. “The turnover ratio also should have been a little better. But things happen. Give credit to Northern.”
The Lights' final scoring drive was set up when senior linebacker Keith Springer recovered a fumble by Rocky quarterback Adam Sanchez on the Bears' 41. Rocky was also flagged for a personal foul on the play, giving Northern a first down on the 26.
The game-breaking, seven-play scoring drive included a weaving 17-yard dash up the middle by Kyle Samson on a third-and-nine scamper from the 25.
Samson, a junior who leads the conference in total offense, passed for 109 yards against the Bears and rushed for 49.
The Lights rushed for 197 of their 306 total yards.
“This (road win) was one of our focal points of the year,” said Saisbury, who is from Helena. “This was our last chance. It was another step we needed to take in this program. It was a little moral victory for this year, since that's about all we've got left.”
Rocky's Sanchez, playing in his final home game, was 22 of 40 passing for 243 yards. He was intercepted three times -twice by Northern's Jake Eldridge.
The last pick - by Eldridge - came in the end zone with 5:40 to play.
Rocky, trailing 21-9, had moved from its own 24 to the Northern 33 when Sanchez's second-down pass - intended for Bobby Coleman - was snagged instead by a leaping Eldridge.
The Bears finished with 332 yards on offense - 222 of it coming in the first half. Rocky was called for 56 yards in penalties in the second half after having none in the first.
Tight end Justin Airola had seven catches for 112 yards for the Bears.
Rocky, which finishes its season with two games on the road, will be at Montana-Western on Saturday. The Lights will have a bye this coming weekend before entertaining Montana Tech in Havre on Nov. 12.
“We're 1-8, but I think we're still a million miles ahead of last year,” said Reeves. “If anyone's following Rocky football, there's still good games and exciting games. We're going to be on our way up. I'm not worried about it. It's frustrating, but I'm not worried.”
Lights 21, Bears 9
MSU-N 0 6 8 7 - 21
Rocky Mountain 0 9 0 0 - 9
MSU-N - Don Saisbury 2 run (run failed) 14:57
RMC - Tyler Cano 18 FG 11:29
RMC - Cano 28 FG 7:22
RMC - Cano 20 FG 0:08
MSU-N - Saisbury 1 run (Danny Wirtzberger pass from Kyle Samson) 5:05
MSU-N - Saisbury 1 run (Chaz Kountz kick) 8:37
First downs 20 18
Rushes-yards 54-197 20-86
Comp-Att-Int 15-20-0 22-40-3
Passing yards 109 246
Total yards 306 332
Punts 6-41 3-43
Fumbles-Lost 2-1 4-2
Penalties-Yards 7-65 6-56
Rushing - Northern, Zach Wermers 16-53, Don Saisbury 12-53, Kyle Samson 17-49, Saxton Shearer 7-42, Adrian Largent 1-2, Jake Eldridge 1-(-2). Rocky, Clint Franklin 9-48, Jimmy Beal 6-31, Adam Sanchez 5-7.
Passing - Northern, Kyle Samson 14-19-0, 109 yards; Danny Wirtzberger 1-1-0, 0 yards. Rocky, Adam Sanchez 22-40-3, 246 yards.
Receiving - Northern, Don Saisbury 4-31, Danny Wirtzberger 3-16, Kyle Samson 1-0, Clint Herrera 1-9, Zach Wermers 2-16, Nick Arnold 3-29, Saxton Shearer 1-8. Rocky, Justin Airola 7-112, Bobby Coleman 6-47, Jason Hagadone 2-7, Riley Stephenson 5-49, Clint Franklin 1-22, Jimmy Beal 1-9.