George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor email@example.com
Last season, it's safe to say the Montana State University-Northern football team didn't play very well at home, winning only twice in Havre all year. However, on Saturday afternoon, the Lights looked like a team accustomed to playing well at Blue Pony Stadium. Northern shut out upset-mined Eastern Oregon University in the second half, and used some big plays in the passing game to get by the Mountaineers 24-7 in front of a large Havre contingent in its home opener. "All-in-all, I'm pleased with the win," MSU-N head coach Mark Samson said. "We played particularly well in the second half, our defense was much better this week, and our special teams was very good. Really, I feel very good about this win." And Samson should. His team scored 17 unanswered points after EOU had tied the game at 7-7 on a series of trick plays in the second quarter. The Mounties had rallied from a slow start which saw MSU-N jump out to a 7-0 lead on a solid drive capped off by a tough Justin Moe touchdown run late in the first period. The Mounties answered with a halfback pass in the second quarter that tied the game at 7-7, and they looked to go ahead as the first half drew to a close when they were driving for another score with a strong wind at their back. But that's when the Lights got their second of five turnovers on the day, none bigger than freshmen linebacker Landry See's interception of EOU quarterback Chris Ware as time nearly expired on a 7-7 first half. "Landry See's interception was a big play for us," Samson said. "If they (Mounties) go in and score right there, it really changes things. "But that's where our defense really stepped up this week," he added. "They played hard and they played really well. And we were able to win the turnover battle, which was big for us." Indeed, the Lights took the momentum of See's interception and a defense clicking on all cylinders and turned it into a dominating second-half performance. Northern went ahead early in the third period on a long field goal by Luke McKinley and EOU really never threatened again. In the fourth quarter, the Lights put together two outstanding drives, capped off by a critical third-down conversion and another one that saw MSU-N make good on a fourth-down conversion, turning both into scores which put the game out of reach. Early in the fourth quarter, freshman quarterback Nick Petrino hooked up with sophomore wide receiver Matt Stuart, who had a big day for the Lights, on a 5-yard touchdown pass that put MSU-N ahead 17-7 with 9:11 remaining in the game. The score was set up by a critical 26-yard completion to Jeff Van Nest on fourth down. Just four minutes later, the Lights were in the endzone again when Moe scored from two yards out. On that drive, Petrino found Stuart for 21 yards on third down to keep the drive alive. "It took us a while to get going," Stuart, who caught four passes for 52 yards and a score, said. "But we kept our focus and we started making plays in the second half. We knew our defense was playing well, and as an offense, it was important for us to stay focused and start making plays, and I think in the second half, we did a good job of that. I think we got into a rhythm." Said Samson: "We struggled in the first half offensively and I'm not sure why. But we made some adjustments in the second half, and as a team, I thought we played much better. The offense made some big plays and was able to turn some of those turnovers into points. I was much more pleased with how we played in the second half." Stuart's day didn't end with his four catches either. He set up Northern's first-quarter score with an excellent punt return, and he was just one of several receivers to make big plays for the Lights. Coda Tchida caught three balls for 66 yards and Van Nest added three catches for 49 yards. Petrino was an efficient 12-of-24 for 182 yards and a score in just his second career start. Northern's running game didn't have as much good fortune on Saturday, but Moe still found the endzone twice. Overall, the Lights rushed for just 66 yards on 44 carries after quarterback sacks, with Moe gaining a solid 80 yards on the ground. "Our numbers weren't very good running the football," Samson said. "And you have to give credit to Eastern Oregon's defense. It's not easy to run on them, they do a good job of bringing eight men up and as coaches, we didn't do a good job of adjusting to it. The kids didn't play bad in the run game, in fact, they played very hard. It wasn't about our effort." Effort was the key to the Lights' success on defense. They held a potent EOU attack to less than 200 yards of offense and forced five turnovers. Northern's front four led by Will Andrews, Jared Weigel and Garrett Glasrud harassed Ware all day long and forced him to a dismal day passing the football just one week after leading the Mounties to a win over Montana Tech at home. Linebacker Stetson Koffman paced the MSU-N defense with 10 tackles, and See added nine to go along with his first-half INT. Ted Wells and Marc McBryan also came up with INTs. "Our defense really improved this week and against a really athletic and good football team," Samson said. "They played hard the whole game and did a good job against a team that was capable of coming in here and really putting up a lot of points." Said Andrews: "I'm really proud of our performance today. This was a good football team and we knew that coming in and our defense really stepped up today. We were flying around all over the field, making plays and getting turnovers. I think we got our Northern swagger back on defense a little bit after this game." The win over EOU (1-1) improved the Lights overall record to 2-0 as a showdown with Carroll College looms. The improved play from the first week to the second was visible to everyone, and now Northern is ready to focus on the vaunted Saints. "Eastern Oregon has a much better team than they have had in the past," Stuart said. "And we feel pretty good about the way we played. They (EOU) were a tough test for us and they got us ready for Carroll. We were only focused on winning this game, and now, we'll be ready for Carroll next week." The much-anticipated first meeting of the year between the Lights and Saints is set for Saturday at 1 p.m. as Northern celebrates homecoming at Blue Pony Stadium.