Havre Daily News Sports Editor
To say that Saturday's game between Montana State University-Northern and Montana Tech is a landmark football game might be pushing it just a little. But if the Lights should earn a Frontier Conference football victory over the No. 15 Orediggers at Blue Pony Stadium, it will certainly be a landmark win at the end of a landmark season.
“It is an important game for us from the standpoint of that we want a winning season. That was a goal we set this year,” MSU-N head coach Mark Samson said. “I won't say it is a milestone game for us, because if we lose I don't believe it sets us back. But if we can win, it would be a milestone win because it would give us our first winning season.
“I think a winning record says a lot about how far this program has come and where we are going,” he added.
One doesn't have to look far to find intrigue surrounding Saturday's season finale for both schools. Aside from Northern (3-4, 5-4) chasing its first winning record, Montana Tech (5-2, 7-3) is trying to lock up an NAIA playoff berth, and it almost certainly needs a win over the Lights to do it. Those factors alone should make the game more than intense, according to Samson.
“I know we're looking forward to it,” Samson said. “Tech is trying to make the playoffs, and we would love to play the role of spoiler.
“I know that our guys are ready to come out and give their best effort in order to try to get a win and finish the season on a positive note,” he added. “And I would be shocked if Tech didn't come in here at their very best as well.”
To add to the excitement surrounding Saturday's tilt, the two teams have already waged an epic battle this season. Last month in Butte, the Orediggers narrowly escaped with a 23-18 win over the Lights. Tech managed to beat the Lights without starting quarterback Aaron Johnson, who was believed to be lost for the season with a broken arm.
But Johnson returned to the Tech lineup two weeks ago, and in Butte last Saturday, he nearly helped guide Tech to an upset win over conference champion Carroll College.
“I think the biggest thing about them getting Johnson back is his experience and leadership,” Samson said. “Obviously he is a good passer, and having him in there opens up their playbook a little bit more.
“But everyone knows, for Tech to be successful they have to run the football,” he added. “We know it and we are prepared for it. But having Johnson back in the lineup certainly makes them a much more balanced team, and it showed in the way they played against Carroll last week.”
Rushing the football and defense will be at a premium, and the team that does both with efficiency on Saturday will likely win. Montana Tech's Josh Johnson is the second-leading rusher in the league with 839 yards. MSU-N quarterback Kyle Samson is third in the league in rushing with 659 yards, and first in the league in total offense with 2,491 yards from scrimmage.
The Orediggers also have sophomore Teague Egan. Egan is a powerful back who has gained more than 500 yards rushing this season. MSU-N's Zach Wermers and Don Saisbury are seventh and eighth in the conference in rushing.
While Tech's rushing attack has never been a surprise to anyone, Northern's offense has also turned into a potent running attack. The Lights have just one loss this season when they ran the football for more than 200 yards, and when they don't, they have dropped three games.
Both defenses are also highly touted. But the Lights' defense has been a pleasant surprise this year. They are second in the league in turnover margin and second in scoring defense. Jake Eldridge and Marc Samson are among the league leaders in interceptions, and Northern has a host of players in the top 20 in tackles.
“For us to be successful, we have to play well on both sides of the ball,” Samson said. “But our defense has been playing very well as of late, and I think they have been much stronger than anyone anticipated this season.
“I know one thing: Both teams are going to come out ready to play,” he added. “We have a lot to play for on Saturday and so does Tech. They are coming off of an emotional loss to Carroll, and they want to make the playoffs. So I would be very surprised if they came out flat.”
The Lights certainly won't come out flat with a winning season and revenge against the Orediggers on their minds. According to Samson, several games got away from the Lights this season and the loss in Butte was one of them.
“When you look back at that game, if we could have won it, maybe we would be the ones playing for a playoff berth right now,” he said. “But we didn't play as well as we should have in that game, and the guys on this team want to atone for that. I know we are going to come out and give our best effort of the season on Saturday.”
Northern's quest to secure a coveted winning season against Montana Tech will kick off at noon at Blue Pony Stadium in Havre. The game can be heard locally on 610 KOJM-AM.