George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor firstname.lastname@example.org
The Montana State University- Northern Lights staged a comeback for the ages against the UM-Western Bulldogs in a game where two young offenses did a lot of growing up. But, in one of the wildest games in recent Frontier Conference history at Blue Pony Stadium on Saturday, it was the No. 7 Lights who fell agonizingly short, losing to the Bulldogs 45-38 in a crazy shootout. After MSU-N fell behind by 21 points in the second half of Saturday’s game, the Lights, behind true f reshman quar terback Gar ren Hammons, rallied to tie the game at 38-38 midway through the fourth quarter. Hammons scored three straight 3-yard touchdowns to bring the Lights back from the dead. But the Bulldogs, who torched MSUN’s vaunted defense all day long, weren't done, and they went ahead again on a 65-yard touchdown pass from Keali’i Perbera to Craigh Cornelius with less than two minutes remaining in the game. Hammons rallied MSU-N one more time, driving the Lights all the way down to the 6-yard line in under a minute. But three straight pass attempts failed, and on fourth down, Hammons connected wi th Jake Eldridge, but the ball never broke the plane, leaving the Lights short of victory as the Bulldogs handed the Lights their first home loss in over a year. “Neither team quit,” Western head coach Tommy Lee said. “You have to give a lot of credit to Northern. We got up big on them and they never gave up and we knew they wouldn’t. This was a great game, and unfortunately, there had to be a loser today. But both teams fought hard and I’m just really proud of our players for that.” The fact that MSU-N was ranked seventh in the country made the upset stunning enough, but the mere fact that the Bulldogs scored 45 points and rolled up 610 yards of offense on a MSU-N defense that was surrendering just f ive points per game was downright shocking. “It’s disappointing that our defense didn’t play better,” MSU-N head coach Mark Samson said. “We just made some really simple and fundamental mistakes that hurt us. Not to take anything from Western because what they were doing on offense, it might not have mattered, but we just didn’t play as well or as hard as we have on defense as we did in the first two games.” “We knew the matchup was there,” Lee said. “We thought and still do think very highly of Northern’s defense. But we also think very highly of our offense and we issued a challenge to our players today. We challenged them to go out there and move the ball, and we were able to do that against a great defense.” Indeed, things looked good for the Bulldogs early on, even after Perbera threw an early interception to Marc McBryan. Western answered Hammons’ first career touchdown pass, a 17-yard strike to Coda Tchida, with a 65-yard hookup between Perbera and Cornelius that tied the game at 7-7 in the first quarter. And from there, the Bulldogs never slowed down. Western scored twice in the second quarter to take a 21-17 lead at halftime. And then the Bulldogs unleashed a scoring whirlwind on the Lights in the third period, scoring 17 points on three straight possessions to lead 38-17 with 4:37 remaining the quarter. In all, Western’s offensive explosion came by way of ground and air. Perbera threw for an astonishing 382 yards and Cornelius caught 10 passes for 257 yards. Western’s ground game was equally effective as running back Derrick Pluff rushed right at the MSU-N defense to the tune of 134 yards on 21 carriers and a touchdown. But as difficult a day as it was for MSU-N’s defense, the Lights were nowhere near done, even down 21 points. Hammons was thrust into action early in the first quarter when starter Jeff Van Nest went down with an ankle injury, and Hammons delivered in a big way. Just two minutes after Pluff plunged into the endzone to put the Bulldogs up 21 points, Hammons connected with Tchida on a 50-yard pass and catch that set up his first of three straight rushing touchdowns, making the score 38-24 late in the third quarter. Then, just minutes later, something good finally happened to MSU-N's defense, as Perbera was drilled by Josh Glaun and MSU-N recovered the fumble setting up the Lights deep in Western territory. And just three seconds into the final stanza, Hammons scored again to cut the deficit to seven points. Hammons' third straight TD came six minutes later and was set up a by a pair of great scrambles, and a miraculous throw to Kelly McBryan on a long third down that put the Lights near the goal line. On the next play, Hammons found the endzone for the game-tying score. In all, Hammons accounted for 35 of MSU-N's 38 points. He threw two Tds including a 10-yard strike to Zach Wermers in the second quarter. He completed 13-of-28 passes for 223 yards and no turnovers. The freshman from Coeur d' Alene, Idaho also led the Lights in rushing with 112 yards on 25 carries. "I thought Green did a great job," Samson said. "I mean that's a true freshman in there in a game with a lot happening out there. "But that's why I recruited him here," he added. "I watched him on film in high school and I knew he was a tough competitor, and I'll tell you what, he made some big time plays out there in some really high-pressure situations." And despite coming up short of winning its eighth straight game at home dating back to last season, the Lights' offense grew up fast on Saturday. Northern gained 502 yards of total offense and rushed for 263 yards, by far its biggest output of the young season. "I thought we did a lot of good things on offense," Samson said. "It's a tough loss and it's one where I just felt like we let that game slip through our hands. But our offense really stepped up big when we needed it most, and I'm proud of that fact. Getting down 21 points, a lot of teams would have folded up their tent, and we didn't do that." But in the end, the day belonged to the Bulldogs, who after suffering to straight two-win seasons, are now tied atop the Frontier standings at 2-0. "Last year, we were a young team and we were green," Lee said. "This year, we're still young, but those tough seasons taught these kids a lot. And they are really coming of age right now. To come up here and beat a great team like Northern, who we have so much respect for, just gives us a lot of confidence right now. Every game in this league is a battle for us. But this win does a lot for these great kids on this team." Things won't get any easier for the Lights (2-1, 1-1) as they prepare to welcome No. 4 Carroll College to Blue Pony Stadium on Saturday. And if Northern wants to stay in the Frontier title chase, Samson knows that Saturday's game at home with the Saints is critical. "We just have to go back to work and get ready for a really tough Carroll team," Samson said. "I don't think this changes anything, and I still believe we have a good chance of doing everything we want to do this season. I think you'll see our defense have a little bit different mind-set this week, and we just need to really prepare hard and be ready to play on Saturday." Saturday's game between MSU-N and Carroll will begin at 1 p.m. at Blue Pony Stadium in Havre.