The 2010 Frontier Conference football season couldn’t have started any better for the Montana State University-Northern Lights. A dominating conference road win was exactly what the Lights were hoping for on the dawn of a brand new season.
But that 20-3 win at UM-Western already seems like a long time ago. And with the first of two bye weeks behind them, the Lights turn their attention to pushing forward when they host Montana Tech in their home opener Saturday at 1 p.m. inside Blue Pony Stadium.
“I think we got some things out of the bye week. Really though, having a bye week this early was the cards we were dealt this season,” MSU-N head coach mark Samson said. “And I’m proud of the way the kids handled it. They worked really hard to get better. But at the same time, it’s kind of like starting the season all over again, because even though we’re 1-0, the kids are right back to being tired of hitting each other in practice. They are anxious for this game and they are ready to get out there and play again. They are excited and fired up.”
The advantage to having an off-week so early in the season is, it gave Samson and the Lights ample time to prepare for the Orediggers. Samson even had the rare chance to scout Tech in person, something a head coach can almost never do in season.
“I would like to think we’re very well prepared this week,” Samson said. “We’ve had a chance to really get ready for Tech and most weeks, it’s not like that. But I’m also really anxious to see how much we’ve improved. We did some good things against Western, but we also had a lot we needed to clean up. So I’m looking forward to seeing how far we’ve come since that first game.”
With a conference-only schedule this season, all of the Lights’ 10 games are big. But given what Northern did at Western on Aug. 28, and what the Orediggers did to Eastern Oregon, a 39-21 win last Saturday in Butte, Saturday’s game at Blue Pony Stadium is amped up a few notches. With both teams at 1-0 in conference play, Saturday’s winner will have an early leg up in the Frontier Conference standings.
And if it’s going to be the Lights who come out on top, it won’t be easy. The Orediggers may the most veteran team in the Frontier this season, and they aren’t just experienced, but they are experienced in the areas where Tech is always the strongest – on both lines, playing stout defense and running the football.
The Orediggers have last year’s rushing leader in Skylar Knuchel back for his junior campaign, but its fellow junior Drew Savage who has led the team on the ground in two games this season. Tech is also huge on the offensive line, led by right tackle Wacy Deegan (6-4, 315). Together, the Tech offensive line averages about 6-1 and 295 pounds.
On defense, the Orediggers return a host of standouts, including defensive end Stephen Burns, who was among the league leaders in sacks and tackles for loss last season. Linebacker Paul Klaboe is also back to anchor Tech’s stingy 3-4 defense, and defensive back Jake Stagnoli is as tough as they come in the secondary.
But as experienced and talented as the Orediggers are on paper, what stands out most to Samson is quarterback Matt Komac, now a four-year starter. Samson has watched Komac grow over the years, and having already played five times against the Lights, Komac will know what to expect on Saturday.
“Tech is a good football team,” Samson said. “They have good players and they are good again at what they do. They are real solid defensively, they are big up front on both the lines, and they run the football well. But I think the biggest difference this year for them is having a senior quarterback. Komac has been starting for four years now and that makes a huge difference. He really does a good job commanding that offense. Stopping him, not letting him beat us with his feet will be a big key for us.”
While Komac did throw for three touchdowns in last Saturday’s win over the Mountaineers in Butte, Samson still says the key to beating Tech lies in stopping their vaunted ground game. Last year in Havre, Knuchel rang up over 200 yards on the ground and Komac added another 30.
But Northern comes into the game with the top rushing defense in the NAIA at this point in the season. In their opener, the Lights held Western to 103 yards on the ground, and they’ll look to do the same to the Diggers. Up front, MSU-N has great rush ends in Jared Weigel and Will Andrews, but tackles Jeff Mahana, Sean Thorton and Nick Weller will need to come up big in plugging the middle against Tech. Junior linebacker Landry See is off to a great start this season, while Saturday will see former Havre Blue Pony Jordan Van Voast make his first start for the Lights. Starting linebacker Anthony Tate was lost for the season after suffering an injury at Western. MSU-N will also need help in the run game from senior Casey Varner, who had three interceptions in MSU-N’s season opener, as well as Seth Wildung and Wade Kelly, both of which are good run-support safeties.
On offense, the Lights will look to build on the momentum they started in Dillon. Quarterback Derek Lear had a strong debut as did receiver Brandon O’Brien. Northern will also want to make good use of running backs Stephen Silva and Justin Montelius, because controlling the clock and field position is always critical in the Northern/Tech rivalry.
“I still believe stopping Tech’s running game is the most important thing,” Samson said. “You want to put them in positions where they have to make plays on third-and-long. Our defense is playing well so far, but this will be a new challenge for them. Offensively, we just need to be consistent, put some good drives together and make plays. We just need to execute.
“This is an important game,” he added. “But every conference game is. I think we’re well-prepared for Tech and now it’s a matter of going out and executing on the field. I know our guys are ready and they are really excited to finally be playing at home.
The Lights and Orediggers will kickoff at 1 p.m. Saturday at Blue Pony Stadium.