Lights strike down Orediggers in front of home crowd
George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor email@example.com
With a historic playoff berth literally hanging in the balance, there was a surprisingly calm feeling surrounding the Montana State University-Northern football team late in its Frontier Conference finale with Montana Tech. And in the end, that calmness led to a thrilling 17-10 come-from-behind win for the No. 13 Lights over the No. 23 Orediggers Saturday at Blue Pony Stadium in Havre. Trailing Tech 10-7 at halftime, the resilient Lights refused to go away, and mounted two important drives that eventually led to not only a season sweep of Tech, but a stellar 9-2 overall record, a solo second-place finish in the Frontier Conference, and a firstever NAIA playoff berth. “It’s a pretty good feeling right now,” MSU-N head coach Mark Samson said. “After we lost to Eastern Oregon, we approached Saturday as our first-round playoff game. It was really do-or-die for us. And I am just really proud of our kids right now. They got down, but they never gave up. They fought like crazy the whole second half, and they found a way to come back and beat a really good football team.” Indeed, things got away from the Lights late in the first half. After former Havre High quarterback Justin Kegel drove the Orediggers on a fiveminute 13-play drive that resulted in a Dan Kleckner 36-yard field goal, Tech trailed MSU-N 7-3. Then, on the ensuing kick off, Kleckner’s short, high kick moved around in the swirling wind, and Northern’s upbacks could not get a handle on it. Instead, Tech recovered the kick, and two plays later, the Orediggers were in the end zone when Kegel hit Alex Grevas from eight yards out to put the Diggers up 10-7. The whole sequence of Tech’s 10 points came in less than a minute. “That was a tough situation for us,” Samson said. “We made a few mistakes that ended up hurting us. But again, the kids didn’t quit. They came back out after halftime and just kept fighting. We knew if we just kept our heads up, good things would happen.” Indeed, Northern, which found a way to beat the Orediggers in Butte last month, found a way again on Saturday. The two teams traded turnovers as the only excitement in the third quarter. But the drama was much more intense in the fourth. The Lights mounted a drive that started in the final two minutes of the third quarter and carried over into the start of the fourth. The drive, which resulted in a game-tying 22-yard field goal by Luke McKinley, was spurred on by a 24-yard pass completion from a hobbled Kyle Samson to Don Saisbury, as well as two big runs by Saisbury and Zach Wermers.
Then, after three possessions where neither team did much with the football, the Lights mounted a classic, regular- season-ending drive that pushed them into a place no Northern team has ever gone before. With just 5:10 remaining in the contest, the Lights took the ball from their own 23-yard-line and marched deep into Montana Tech territory. Key plays on the drive included a 20-yard pass play to Marc Samson, a 12-yard third down conversion to Nick Bodeman and one, big yard by Saisbury on fourth down. But perhaps the biggest play was one that didn’t result in any points for MSU-N. When the drive appeared to stall inside the 20, McKinley came on to attempt a game-winning field goal. But the kick missed to the left and the game looked to be headed for overtime. However, McKinley was roughed on the play, setting MSU-N up with a first-and-goal. Two plays later, Saisbury was in the end zone for the second time, and more importantly, the Lights held a seven-point lead with just 41 seconds left in the regular season. “It’s a great feeling right now. It is indescribable really,” Saisbury said. “We didn’t play well last week in Oregon as a team. So we made a point this week to really practice hard. And I think that showed today. This was a tough game. Tech is always a tough team. But we hung in there together, and we got it done in the second half.” Saisbury was certainly the catalyst on Saturday. The junior from Helena caught an astounding 13 passes for 157 yards, and he rushed for 33 more. He scored twice on the day, including a 31-yard TD pass in the second quarter which put the Lights ahead 7-0. “Donny Saisbury was unbelievable today,” Kyle Samson said. “He really stepped up and made a lot of big plays when we really needed them.” Samson, who was playing Tech on a gimpy ankle for the second time this season, wasn’t too bad himself. The senior, playing in his final game at Blue Pony Stadium, completed 21 passes for 222 yards, including two big plays to his brother, Marc Samson, who was playing offense for the first time this season. “We had a lot of guys step up big, especially in the second half,” Mark Samson said. “Donny had a huge game, and I thought Kyle threw the ball well. I was also really happy with what our offensive line did. They stepped up and did a great job of protecting Kyle and giving our offense time to get some things going. They did a great job.” Said Kyle Samson: “You have to give a lot of credit to our defense and our offensive line. We had to come out and pass more than we normally do and our offensive line did a great job of giving me time to throw the ball. I am just really proud of this team. We needed to win this game, and we did what we had to do to get it done.” Kegel, playing in front of a lot of hometown fans, played valiantly . The junior from Havre was 10-for- 25 for 119 yards and one touchdown. The Frontier’s leading rusher, Teague Egan, did pick his way for 97 yards, but was kept out of the end zone by the MSU-N defense. The Lights got 10 tackles apiece from Josh Glaun and Dilan Saisbury, as well as interceptions by Khalin Anderson and Jake Eldridge. “You have to give credit to Northern,” Tech head coach Bob Green said. “They deserved to win. They made some big plays at the end of the game when they needed to and we didn’t.” And if beating the Orediggers for the second time wasn’t good enough, the win cemented a playoff berth for the Lights, who will now travel to Carroll College for a third meeting with the Saints this season. “Again, I’m just really proud of this team,” Mark Samson said. “We knew coming in that we absolutely had to win this game. And Montana Tech is a very good football team, so that was not an easy thing for our kids to have on them. “But this group has been poised and mature all season long,” he added. “And I think that really carried us through. They just wouldn’t give up, and now they are rewarded with being one of only 16 teams left that has a chance to play for a national championship.”