George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor firstname.lastname@example.org
After two of the most difficult weeks in recent Montana State University- Northern football history, the Lights were hoping a return to Blue Pony Stadium would help them get their swagger back. Mission accomplished. On Saturday afternoon, MSU-N kicked its two-game Frontier Conference losing skid to the curb in a 38-28 win over a pesky UM-Western team inside a sun-drenched Blue Pony Stadium. Northern used the big play on offense, something that had been missing the last two weeks, as well as a return to a ball-gawking defense to subdue the Bulldogs in exciting fashion. The Lights eclipsed the 400-yard mark on offense, and were downright stingy at times on defense. "The first thing I want to say is that I'm proud of the way the Lights bounced back today," MSU-N head coach Mark Samson said. "After two really difficult weeks on the road, we came home and played really well and got a big win. We also proved to a lot of people and to ourselves that we're still a pretty good football team and I'm proud of this team for that." The Lights did indeed prove plenty to themselves throughout the course of Saturday's game, including the fact that a once-dominant defense was still that when it needed to be. Northern picked off Western backup Garrett Graves five times, and the league's leading team in takeaways forced the Bulldogs into six turnovers. Key interceptions came on Western scoring chances when the Bulldogs trailed just 28-21. Luke McKinley intercepted Graves at midfield on one comeback drive, and later in the third quarter, senior cornerback Khalin Anderson grabbed a Graves pass in the endzone to thwart another Western drive. Casey Varner, Ted Wells and Jhevon McMillan also grabbed INTs, including Wells' pick on a Western hail mary pass to close the first half. "All of those interceptions were key because it gave the ball back to our offense, which was playing well today," McKinley, the linebacker from Great Falls said. "Both Khalin's and mine gave us more scoring opportunities, and with how Western throws it all over the place, we needed to keep having chances to score. They were big plays." With the third-quarter takeaways in tow, the Lights set out on closing the door on Western in the fourth.In two scoring drives in the final stanza, MSU-N held the ball for almost 11 of the final 15 minutes. The game-winner came by way of an 11-play 83-yard drive which was capped off by Nick Petrino's third touchdown pass of the day, a 23-yard catch and run by Matt Stuart, who also had a big day for the Lights. Later, MSU-N finalized a season sweep of the Bulldogs by going on a five-minute drive which ended with a Kyle Kercher 23-yard field goal to put the Lights way ahead, 38-21. "As an offense, as a team, we knew we had to bring it all today," Stuart said. "We need wins, and I think offensively, we stepped up today and made some big plays when we had to. The whole team did that today." Stuart and fellow wide receiver Garren Hammons were a shining example of that, as was the always-reliable Justin Moe. All three players ripped off huge gains in the first half, either on passes from Petrino or on runs. Moe opened the scoring with a scintillating 19-yard touchdown run, and the Lights answered Graves' first TD of the day with an 8-yard run by Moe to make the score 14-6 early in the second quarter. In fact, MSU-N had an answer for Western's offense, which totaled over 400 yards, including 366 by Graves in the air, all day. The junior was filling in for the injured Micah Mamiya. Late in the second quarter, Graves threw a 28-yard TD strike to Craigh Cornelius, who had two Tds and 131 yards, to tie the game at 14-14. But Northern wasn't going to be denied all day, and the Lights took a 21-14 lead into halftime after Petrino found Hammons from 10 yards out with just :32 left in the half. Hammons would come up big again, scoring on a 30-yard catch and run shortly after Western had tied the game on a 66-yard bomb from Graves to Cornelius at the start of the second half. "I thought we had a lot of people play really well today," Samson said. "Justin Moe, Garren Hammons, Matt Stuart, they all had big individual performances. When Nick (Petrino) settled into the game, he also played extremely well. He did some good things with the ball and really led us down the field. "I also thought we played well defensively," he added. "They (Bulldogs) are scary on offense, and the Graves kid came in here and played at a high level. And it's true, they got their yards, but our defense made big stops, we got pressure on the quarterback in the second half, and of course, the turnovers were big. I thought our defense had a great day against a very good offensive team." Moe, the Frontier's leading rusher, had a season-high 163 yards and two scores as he ran wild on the Western defense. Fullback Ty Cochrell added 51 yards, and through the air, Northern got a whopping 161 yards on six catches from Stuart, while Hammons grabbed three balls for 58 yards. Junior Jeff Van Nest was all over the field for MSU-N offensively, as he saw time at quarterback in several different offensive packages. Van Nest rushed for 19 yards, passed for 22 yards and caught two balls for 16 yards. Petrino was also efficient, throwing for 221 yards and two scores. As a team, the Lights racked up 460 yards on offense, including over 200 on the ground. Defensively, MSU-N shut down Western's ground game, while Wells and Landry See racked up 11 tackles a piece. McMillan had a big day too, adding nine tackles to his INT. "I think we accomplished a lot today," Stuart said. "We came out and played with an intensity right from the start. We showed that the Lights can still play." Graves' 366 yards included completions to 10 different receivers. Adding to Cornelius' big day was Michael Guelff's seven catches for 105 yards. The loss to Northern dropped Western to 2-7 in Frontier play and 2-8 overall. The Lights meanwhile, kept their NAIA playoff hopes alive by improving to 6-3 in conference play. Northern closes out the regular season at home in a special Friday night game with Montana Tech. The Lights and Orediggers will kick off at Blue Pony Stadium at 7 p.m. "We needed a big win today and we came out as a team, played really hard and got it done," McKinley said. "Now we just have to finish the season strong and see how things play out." Quick Hits: Northern's first touchdown of the day was set up by as strange a play as many have seen lately. The Lights were deep in Western territory when Petrino was intercepted by Western's Zach Bristol, but during his return he fumbled and the ball was recovered by Petrino. One play later, Moe rumbled 19 yards to put the Lights up 7-0. Anderson's INT was his league-leading fifth of the season, while Wells picked his fourth of the year and Varner, his second in his last two home games. The win over the Bulldogs was MSUN's sixth in their last eight meetings.