Havre Daily News Sports Editor
The Wind Bowl. That is what Saturday's Frontier Conference football game between Montana State University-Northern and Montana Tech at Blue Pony Stadium in Havre could be aptly named.
Rarely has a football game been so affected by the wind. The 50 mph gusts coming from the west wreaked havoc all day long, and a game that started with high hopes ended in a disappointing 34-24 loss for MSU-N.
“It was a very strange game,” MSU-N head coach Mark Samson said. “The wind definitely affected what both teams could do.
“But what was most disappointing for us is that we shot ourselves in the foot a number of times,” he added. “We made a lot of unforced errors and we had some really stupid penalties. You just can't win games when you play like that.”
Northern also felt the sting of losing star quarterback Kyle Samson to a knee injury in the second quarter. With Tech clinging to a 17-13 lead with less than seven minutes remaining in the first half, Samson was drilled on a cornerback blitz and his knee twisted as he went down. Samson was taken off the field in obvious pain, and did not return the rest of the game. At press time, the extent of the injury had not yet been determined.
The two teams were locked in a tight tussle before Samson's injury. After Tech grabbed an early 3-0 lead, Northern answered with good field position that culminated in an 8-yard touchdown run by Don Saisbury. It was one of three short TD runs for Saisbury on the day.
The Orediggers answered when Tucker Edmundson picked Samson off and raced 58 yards untouched to the end zone, putting Tech back in front 10-7. Two possessions later the Lights got back on top when Saisbury scored from two yards out. The drive was helped by a 7-yard punt by Tech that set the Lights up in good field position. Saisbury's score capped a wild first quarter that saw Northern lead 13-10.
“The wind certainly hurt both teams when it came to punting and field position,” Samson said. “I thought we played very well at the start of the game. But turnovers ended up really hurting us, and Tech took advantage of a few of them.
“We just didn't get the breaks on Saturday,” he added. “But we didn't make our own breaks either.”
Just before Kyle Samson's knee injury, Tech regained the lead as it was the Lights' turn to go into the teeth of the wind. Saisbury's punt from his own end zone was blocked and recovered by J.J. Perino for the go-ahead score.
Tech also scored just before halftime when quarterback Aaron Johnson hooked up with Brian Styck for a 20-yard TD pass that put the Lights in a 24-13 hole, and facing a second half without their quarterback.
In the second half, starting wide receiver Dan Wirtzberger became an emergency quarterback for the Lights and performed admirably. The Lights took advantage of the wind as Tech's punting woes set up two MSU-N third- quarter scores.
Wirtzberger engineered a short drive that was capped off by Saisbury's final TD run. Wirtzberger also hit Nick Arnold for a two-point conversion that pulled the Lights to within three points, 24-21.
Northern's defense, which played remarkably in the second half, forced Tech into another punting situation with three minutes remaining in the third quarter. This time, however, the Orediggers opted to try to pick up a first down, but failed, giving the Lights outstanding field position again.
Penalties kept the Lights out of the end zone, but Chaz Kountz connected on a 28-yard game-tying field goal.
“Danny did a great job of getting us some points in the third quarter,” Samson said. “Even after we lost Kyle, the kids didn't quit on us. In the end, we just made too many mistakes and we aren't good enough up front to run the football when we were going against the wind in the fourth quarter.”
There was a moment early in the fourth quarter when Northern had a golden opportunity to take the lead away from the Orediggers. Aaron Johnson fumbled a snap deep in Oredigger territory at the start of the fourth quarter and Marc Samson recovered the ball for the Lights. Northern had several shots to get into the end zone, but on third and long, Wirtzberger was picked off, thwarting the MSU-N comeback.
From there, Tech tacked on a Josh Johnson 4-yard TD run and a Dan Kleckner 47-yard field goal. Both scores were set up by, what else, the wind. Johnson's run came one play after another Saisbury punt failed to net more than 5 yards. And Kleckner's field goal, with the wind, would be the final nail in the Lights' coffin.
“It was disappointing because both times we played Tech this year we just didn't play well for four quarters,” Samson said. “We just gave the ball away too much and had way too many penalties. It was just a day when we couldn't afford to have those kind of mistakes.”
As a team, the Lights dominated the game in total offense. Kyle Samson had 121 yards passing before his injury. Wirtzberger went 8-21 passing for 62 yards. Northern's defense limited Tech to 160 total yards of offense and eight first downs.
The win essentially locked up a playoff berth for the Orediggers, who finished the regular season with a 6-2 conference record and 8-3 overall. Northern's turnaround from 1-10 a year ago is complete with a 5-5 overall record and a 3-5 conference record, which was good enough for third place.
“We set a goal to finish better than .500 this season,” Samson said. “Obviously, we could have done that because we lost three games by a total of 16 points.
“But when we look back at this year, it will definitely be a season we can be proud of as a team,” he added. “We came a long way, and with some hard work and good recruiting we'll keep things headed in the right direction.”
Orediggers 34, Lights 24
Montana Tech 10 14 0 10 - 34
MSU-N 13 0 11 0 - 24
MT - FG, Dan Kleckner 32
MSU-N - Don Saisbury 8 run (Chaz Kountz kick) 6:56
MT - Tucker Edmundson 58 pass interception return (Kleckner kick) 4:10
MSU-N - Saisbury 2 run (Kountz kick) :33
MT - J.J. Perino 1 run (Kleckner kick) 9:40
MT - Brian Styck 20 pass from Aaron Johnson (Kleckner kick) 5:52
MSU-N - Saisbury 2 run (Nick Arnold pass from Danny Wirtzberger) 7:30
MSU-N - FG, Kountz 28, 1:03
MT - Josh Johnson 4 run (Kleckner kick) 9:58
MT - FG, Kleckner 47, 3:28
First downs 8 14
Rushes-yards 42-84 43-80
Passing 10-21-0 14-31-3
Passing yards 76 183
Fumbles-lost 2-1 1-1
Penalties 9-70 10-77
Punts 7-28.1 6-39.5
Time of possession 37:01 30:21
RUSHING - MT, Teague Egan 18-39, Josh Johnson 16-20, Tyler Muzzana 2-15, Hustad 1-7. MSU-N, Don Saisbury 14-34, Zach Wermers 12-31, Saxton Shearer 3-14, Danny Wirtzberger 8-8.
PASSING - MT, Johnson 10-19-0-76. Adam Cotton 0-1-0-0. MSU-N, Kyle Samson 6-10-1-121, Wirtzberger 8-21-2-62.
RECEIVING - MT, J. Johnson 3-27, Brian Styck 2-23, Kris Anderson 2-13, Kevin Dighans 2-7. MSU-N, Nick Arnold 6-67, Wermers 3-16, Saisbury 2-32, Shearer 1-49.