Even on an overcast, chilly and windy fall day, lightning can still strike. And the Montana State University-Northern football team proved lightning can indeed strike twice — maybe even three times.
On Saturday afternoon at Blue Pony Stadium, the Lights got a four-yard touchdown connection from quarterback Derek Lear to senior Matt Stuart in overtime to upend the UM-Western Bulldogs 36-33, snapping a four-game losing streak in the process. The win also made it a season sweep over the Bulldogs for MSU-N, and the overtime victory was the first in three years for the Lights. Their last OT win came in 2007 at where else, but in Havre.
And on the game-winning score, the Lights mobbed Stuart, a four-year starter and team captain in the endzone, showing just how much getting back into the win column meant.
“This means a lot, I’m really proud of the team,” Stuart, who caught eight balls for 88 yards and the game-winning score said. “Everyone on this team definitely stepped up today, we were behind a few times, but we came back and pulled it off.”
Northern did have to battle back time and time again in what turned out to be the most exciting game of the season thus far.
The Lights looked like they put the game away when Lear, who was injured near the end of the first half, but returned because of a knee injury to freshman backup quarterback Travis Dean, threw a miraculous 29-yard TD pass to Cut Bank’s Orin Johnson with just over one minute left in the game. The score, which came on fourth down, was Johnson’s second of the day, and put the Lights ahead 30-23.
“I stood in there as long as long as I could, I had to wait to throw it, but we knew Orin could go up and make a play for us,” Lear said. “He’s just a great player and he makes big plays.
“I wasn’t sure if we were in the endzone because I was on the ground when he caught it,” he added. “But it was a great catch by “OJ” (Johnson) and it was a great call by the coaches. It means a lot to this offense that they had confidence in us to go for it in that situation, and I think as an offense we gained a lot of confidence from this game. It shows we can overcome some adversity and it gives us a lot of confidence going forward.”
Even with the score, the winless Bulldogs (0-6, 0-7) weren’t going away.
Western promptly marched 62 yards in just :57, scoring on a Jeff Logan six-yard pass to Rashad Penniston to force overtime. The Bulldogs then kicked a 35-yard Yim Sribenjakul field goal on their first possession of OT to go ahead 33-30.
But it was Northern’s defense forcing Western into the field goal, and a later pass interference call against Western on MSU-N’s Brandon O’Brien in the endzone on the Lights’ first OT try which changed the course of the game. Northern defensive ends Jared Weigel, Will Andrews and Travis Hjort were all over Western’s backfield in the OT, and the back seven had great coverage in MSU-N’s three stops on the possession.
“I Can’t say enough about the effort from our defense today,” MSU-N head coach Mark Samson said. “Western’s offense was very good, they are a different team with (Jeff) Logan at quarterback, and he made some great plays today. But our defense stepped up big in overtime, forcing them to kick a long field goal and that gave us a chance to go and win the game with a score.
“I have to say, Western is a much better football team than their record shows and I’m just really impressed with how they played today,” he added. “This was a good, hard-fought game. But I’m really proud of our kids, they showed a lot of heart, a lot of character to keep coming back the way they did today”
While Western piled up 510 total yards of offense, including over 300 yards in the air from Logan, Northern’s defense did make big stops when it had to, and it turned out to be a big key to the game. The Lights forced Western to kick some long field goals, and while Sribenjakul connected on four makes on the day, those makes were three points instead of seven each time, which were victories for the Lights on defense.
“We gave up some yards that we would have liked to have back,” junior linebacker Landry See, who had eight stops said. “But we made some great stops in overtime, we got it done when we needed to.”
The Lights struck quickly to start the game, going on a 76-yard, five-minute march which led to an 11-yard TD pass from Lear to tight end Brian Torgerson. Western answered on a nine-yard TD strike to Colton Woods to start the second quarter, then took a 10-7 lead on a Sribenjakul field goal which came off one of Lear’s two second-quarter interceptions.
But the Lights got a break late in the half when Western’s Charlie Dotson fumbled deep in MSU-N territory and Kyle Kercher cashed in on a field goal from 41 yards out as time expired on a 10-10 first half.
Like MSU-N’s defense, Kercher’s leg proved to be a game-changer as well. After Western went up 13-10 in the third quarter, Kercher drilled a 36-yarder and he added a game-tying 27-yard field goal which knotted things at 23-23 with seven minutes left in the game.
Johnson and Lear also came up clutch in the third quarter when the game was still tied at 13-13. Lear stood tall in the pocket again and hit Johnson, who broke several tackles and went in from 28 yards away to put the Lights up 20-13, setting up a wild finish which included a 92-yard pass from Logan to Kahai Sevilla on the first play of the fourth quarter to tie the game back up at 20-20.
From there, Johnson’s second TD catch and Stuart's game-winner were moments which the Lights look at as a start to their second season.
“All week the coaches have talked about being 0-0 again,” Lear said. “So we accomplished the first step in that. And this gives us a lot of confidence, to know we can score when we’re behind. Everybody stepped up today, the offensive line did a great job, the defense got big stops when we needed them, and the offense made some big plays when we had to have them. It was a exactly how we wanted to come out and start the second half the season.”
Lear finished the game with 249 yards passing, four touchdowns and three INT's, while the Lights racked up 404 yards of total offense against a stout Western defense. Johnson caught five balls for 87 yards, and Stephen Silva and Justin Montelius combined for 127 yards on the ground.
On defense, the Lights got nine tackles from Seth Wildung and two sacks from Andrews. Weigel added a sack and two hurries, while Sevilla totaled 158 yards receiving for the Bulldogs.
The win pushed Northern to 2-4 on the season heading into this Saturday’s road trip to Montana Tech.
“Again, I’m just proud of our guys,” Samson said. “They came out pretty fired up today, from scoring right away, to making some big plays on offense, to getting those three stops on defense in overtime, we did a lot of good things today. And against a team who came in here and played a great game against us. So these guys should be proud of this win, and I know I’m proud of them for finding ways to get it done.”