For many years, the Cut Bank High School football team was a Class B dynasty.
It hasn’t been like that in recent times, but in MSU-Northern’s thrilling 36-33 overtime win over UM-Western Saturday at Blue Pony Stadium, a pair of former Wolves gave the Lights a boost they needed.
MSU-N senior Matt Stuart, a former Cut Bank standout, and redshirt freshman Orin Johnson, a former four-sport star in Cut Bank, both made big plays to help the Lights to their first win since Aug. 28.
Stuart was on the receiving end of a game-winning, four-yard TD pass from Derek Lear in overtime, and overall had eight catches for 88 yards. Johnson grabbed five balls on Saturday for 87 yards, none bigger though than the two that gave the Lights 14 points on the day.
“The swirl route had been working for us all day,” Stuart said of his game-winning catch. “We knew when we got that close that was a play we could go to and we executed it perfectly. I got open and Derek (Lear) saw it and made a perfect throw.
“That route is something we work on as far as our goal-line offense every day,” MSU-N head coach Mark Samson said. “And Stu (Stuart) runs such good routes we knew it was something we could get in on once we got the pass interference call and got down that close. The guys executed the play perfectly.”
Stuart has been wowing MSU-N fans for years, and is having a productive senior season, leading the Frontier Conference in yards-per-catch. He’s also been MSU-N’s punt returner the last three seasons and is as reliable a big-play receiver as there is in the league.
But his younger Cut Bank counterpart is starting to make his own imprint on the Lights’ offense too.
Johnson caught a 28-yard TD pass from Lear in the third quarter, one in which he showcased his great size by breaking tackles, and his speed by running away from defenders to the endzone. But his 29-yard leaping TD grab with just over a minute to play in the game, which gave the Lights a 30-23 lead, was one which highlighted his receiving skills and his pure athletic ability - An ability which also led Johnson to become a great baseball player for the Tri-County Cardinals the last few summers.
“It’s exciting to be able to make a play like that in that situation and help the team win,” Johnson said. “It was a great throw by Derek and I’m just fortunate I had the opportunity to go up and make a big play. But the biggest thing is the win. That’s what matters most today.
“Orin made some great plays today,” Samson added. “He’s a tremendous athlete, and this season, he’s already showing what a bright future he has in this league. The touchdown in the fourth quarter, if the wind hadn’t started swirling so hard we probably would have kicked that field goal there. But we didn’t think with the wind we could get it there. So we went for it, and Orin went up and made a great catch. He had a great game for us today and his plays really helped us build and keep momentum.”
Stuart is the third-leading receiver in the Frontier Conference in what will be his last at Northern. Meanwhile, Johnson is part of a young group of receivers at MSU-N, with the likes of Brandon O’Brien, Tyson Lucier, Mick Miller and Brandt Monteluis, who have not only learned from veterans like Stuart, but are making their own way towards building Northern’s offense for the future.
And Saturday was a great start.
“Really proud of the guys on offense,” Stuart said. “We are a young team, and this was a game in which we kept having to move the ball, kept needing points. And all of the guys stepped up and got it done.”
Kercher’s legs, and toes
Northern couldn’t have pulled off Saturday’s dramatic win without the leg of junior receiver/kicker Kyle Kercher. But his toes did some work too.
Kercher caught a key pass from Lear in MSU-N’s game-winning overtime drive, one in which he dragged his toes in bounds while hauling in the pass. The pay was an outstanding one and kept the Lights moving forward.
But it was his field goals which gave the Lights chances all day lone.
Kercher kicked a 41-yarder into the wind as time expired on the first half to pull the Lights even with Western at 10-10. He added a 36-yarder in the third quarter, and calmly nailed a clutch 27-yard attempt in the fourth stanza to tie the game at 23-23. The kick came at a time when the wind had shifted directions inside Blue Pony Stadium, so Kercher, who was also perfect on Point-After-Attempts on the day, had to kick key field goals against the wind in both directions.
“Kyle had a great day kicking,” Samson said. “It was a tough day for kicking because it was a little colder and the wind really started swirling around during the course of the game. And they (Bulldogs) made some big kicks, so it was really big for us that Kyle was able to make those kicks today. It was one of the big differences in the game.”
Young Lights’ firsts
Saturday’s game was dramatic in many ways. But Northern couldn’t have won without some big contributions from some of its younger players.
On Northern’s opening drive, Helena freshman Brian Torgerson caught his first career touchdown pass for the Lights. The TD by the 6-2, 235-pound tight end was an 11-yard strike from Lear and it gave Northern a quick 7-0 lead.
Fellow Brandt Montelius also had his first career reception Saturday. Montelius, a freshman wide receiver from Missoula made a key grab early in the contest, while his older brother, Justin Montelius had a first of his own.
In the fourth quarter, with the Lights trailing 23-20, Montelius ripped off his longest run from scrimmage of his career, a 51-yard rumble which set the Lights up in the redzone on a game-tying possession. Montelius started for the Lights at linebacker last year, but was as a sophomore, moved to running back and he’s now had two very productive games in a row, after being slowed by injuries at the start of the season. He finished the day with 57 yards rushing.
A show again
The Lights and Bulldogs have played some exciting games at Blue Pony Stadium over the years.
And Saturday’s contest somewhat mirrored a 2007 affair in which the Lights outlasted Western 45-37 in a game which went down to the final overtime play.
Western and Northern have now played four straight games at Blue Pony Stadium in which the average margin of victory was less than 10 points and the game was still in doubt in the fourth quarter.
Saturday's game was another shootout in the end. The Lights and Bulldogs combined for 27 points in the final 15 minutes of regulation.