One of the mantras of the Montana State University-Northern football team all season long has been — the Lights were looking for a game in which both the offense and defense played well for 40 minutes at the same time.
And while the Lights had their moments on both sides of the ball in last Saturday’s overtime win over UM-Western, Northern finally accomplished that mission for real Saturday afternoon in Butte.
For the first time all season, the Lights were able to string back-to-back wins together after beating the Montana Tech Orediggers 21-14 at Alumni Stadium Saturday.
Northern accomplished the feat by getting a consistently good game from its offense, including no turnovers, as well as receiving a stellar outing from the MSU-N defense, which limited the usually potent Orediggers to 167 yards of total offense and a mere nine first downs.
“I would say it was our most complete and consistent game by far,” MSU-N head coach Mark Samson said.
“Offensively, we did a lot of really good things. We took care of the football, and even though we didn’t score as many points as we wanted, we had some great drives that ate up a lot of time, especially in the second half and we were able to change field position a number of times,” he added. “Defensively, we just played great throughout the game. We made some big plays on defense, got some important stops and overall, we limited them (Orediggers) in what they wanted to do. So it was a great win for us, against a very good football team.”
Perhaps just as important as anything, for the second week in a row, the Lights jumped out to the lead. On the first possession of the game, MSU-N freshman quarterback Derek Lear got hot and never looked back. He completed his first six passes, including a 42-yard strike to Matt Stuart on the Light's first possession. One play later, fullback James Chandless ran up the middle for a 5-yard touchdown to put the Lights ahead 7-0 less than four minutes into the game. The four-play, 52-yard drive followed a 40-yard return by Stephen Silva on the opening kickoff.
Lear, who finished the day 19-of-29 for 297 yards and no interceptions, also threw a beautiful 45-yard scoring pass to senior Matt Stuart two plays into the second quarter to put the Lights up 14-0. Tech answered with a 21-yard TD of its own just before the half, but the Lights held an important 14-7 lead.
“Derek Lear played a great game,” Samson said. “He was in control of our offense all day, and he really made some great throws and some great reads. He didn’t turn it over and again, even on possessions where we didn’t come away with points, he led us on big drives which helped us keep Tech’s offense off the field. He just had a really good day for us.
“It was big for us to get off to such a good start too,” Samson added. “For the most part, we played a really complete first half. We jumped on them 14-0 and that was big for us, it gave us momentum and I think it gave us a lot of confidence going into the rest of the game.”
The Northern defense certainly played with confidence. The Lights held Tech at bay throughout the third quarter, before the Diggers’ finally tied the game at 14-14 on a Matt Komac 4-yard pass to Brandon Boltz on the first play of the fourth.
Still, while Komac, who has at times been the best QB in the Frontier Conference this season did throw two scores, the Lights really held him in check. Northern had five sacks on the day, and Komac threw for just 167 yards and ran for only 16 more on 12 carries. It was unlike the game he had during last month’s 17-13 win over the Lights in Havre.
“Really proud of the job the defense did,” Samson said. “They really played with a lot of energy and they played physical. We were a hard-hitting defense in this game and that was great to see. Komac is a very good, dangerous player, but our defense did a great job with their assignments and we didn’t let him beat us.”
As well as the Lights played on both sides of the ball for three quarters, the game was still in doubt in the fourth. But Northern proceeded to mount two drives in the final 13 minutes which lifted the Lights to their third win of the season.
First, the Lights marched down the field with a mixture of run, pass and the “wildcat” formation, which redshirt freshman Orin Johnson ran to perfection to the tune of 66 yards on just six carries on Saturday. The Lights’ game-winning drive was then capped off by a leaping one-handed grab by freshman tight end Brian Torgerson at the 7:39 mark. The catch came on a 22-yard pass from Lear, his third TD of the day, and it gave the Lights a 21-14 lead.
Northern forced Tech to a three-and-out on its next possession, and the Lights, led again by Lear, went on a five-minute, clock-killing drive. The Lights didn’t come away with any points, but they didn’t give the Orediggers the ball back until the two-minute mark, and from there, the Lights took it right back when Travis Hjort, who had three sacks on the day and Sean Thorton drilled Komac and forced a fumble, essentially ending the game.
Lear was spectacular, as was Hjort, but plenty of Lights got into the act. Stuart caught three passes for a whopping 103 yards, while Kyle Kercher added six catches for 52 yards. Stephen Silva ran hard against a good Tech defense for 53 yards but had over 100 yards on the day in kickoff returns. Torgerson had three catches, including his acrobatic game-winner and Johnson was a monster yet again. He caught three passes for 30 yards, but played brilliantly in the Lights’ “wildcat” package.
“OJ (Johnson) ran really hard, he did a great job in the 'wildcat',” Samson said. “It wasn’t anything real complicated. We just wanted to change some things up against Tech, show them a different look. They were pretty simple plays, but OJ ran so well, he just ran really hard and they (Diggers’) had a hard time stopping him. So it worked out.
“But we had a lot of players step up,” he added. “Offense, defense and special teams, we just had a lot of guys playing hard and making plays for us. And in the end, it was a fun game. It was really fun to watch us play so well on the road against a good team. It was just a great win for us.”
A great win indeed. The Lights, who avenged their earlier loss to Tech, are now 3-4 heading into Saturday’s regular season home finale against a streaking Eastern Oregon team. Tech fell to 4-4 overall and 4-3 in conference play.
Saturday’s game between the Lights and Mountaineers will kick off at 12 p.m. at Blue Pony Stadium.