The Montana State University-Northern Lights’ offense was firing on all cylinders in the first half, but it was the MSU-N defense which made the game-changing plays in what was a Northern season-opening victory.
With a resilient UM-Western team threatening to send the Lights' 2011 debut game into overtime, junior linebacker A.J. Pasalo made a play Northern fans won’t soon forget. With MSU-N ahead 24-17, the Bulldogs took possession on the Northern 41-yard-line with 1:25 left to go. But Western quarterback Jeff Logan dropped back with a throw over the middle in mind, and Northern's Pasalo read the pass perfectly, jumped in front of the intended receiver and made a game-saving interception. Pasalo’s INT gave Northern a 24-17 season-opening win Saturday afternoon at Blue Pony Stadium.
“I had seen them (Bulldogs) run that play a few times earlier and we had got our hands on a couple of those passes but didn’t come up with them,” Pasalo, who finished the game with nine tackles and the game-changing pick said. “So I just knew I had a chance to make a play on the ball. We needed a big play right there and thankfully, it happened. “
Pasalo’s INT was one of two game-changers for a Lights team which saw a 17-0 halftime lead deteriorate in the fourth quarter. Northern was ahead 17-3 at the start of the fourth when MSU-N’s defense forced Western to punt from near its own goal line. The result was a Ryan Craig punt block which was later recovered in the endzone for a score which put the Lights ahead 24-3.
At the time of Craig’s block, it seemed like Northern would cruise to victory, but those seven points wound up being the game-winning one’s.
“It was good to see us make some plays like that when we absolutely needed them,” Northern head coach Mark Samson said. “Credit Western, they played hard to the very end and they really put us up against it in the second half. Some of it was some things we didn’t do well offensively or defensively in the second half, but Western also made some big plays, and it turned out we needed those two big defensive plays to hang on.”
Indeed. It was a tale of two halves for the Lights.
Northern raced out of the gates by scoring three of its first four possessions. The Lights got a 25-yard field goal from Juan Garcia before the passing game really opened. Late in the first quarter found Kyle Johnston on a quick hitter that went for 22 yards, then he dropped in a 33-yard bomb to Brandon O’Brien. The latter set up MSU-N up with its first touchdown of the season, a one-yard leap over the pile by Stephen Silva which made the score 10-0.
And Lear wasn’t done. On the first play of the second quarter, Lear dropped back from his own 21, threw a deep ball down the right sideline and Johnston did the rest, racing 79 yards through traffic for a score which put the Lights up 17-0.
“It was nice to get things going early,” Lear, the sophomore from Fairfield said. “I wish we could have executed better in the second half. But we were able to hit some deep passes early. We have a lot of playmakers on this team, guys who can go out and make plays and you saw that in the first half. So it felt good that we were able to get off to a good start early, especially with how Western battled us right to the end.
“We studied film on them all week and there were zones open all over the field,” O’Brien said. “We harped on it all week, that we needed to find those zones, settle in and wait for Derek (Lear) to find us. Derek (Lear) was right on the money, and the offensive line protected him enough so that he could find us.
“The defense came through for us, it was great. It was great on both sides of the ball and special teams as well.”
Indeed, as O’Brien mentioned, it wasn’t just MSU-N’s offense which shined at the onset. Northern’s defense harassed Logan early on, and the Lights held the Bulldogs without a first down until the 10:54 mark of the second quarter.
But the second half was a much different story. While the Lights’ offense continued to move the ball, they didn’t score a point in the final 30 minutes of the game. Conversely, Western followed a seemingly harmless Yim Sribenjakul to start the third quarter with a barrage of plays in the fourth.
The Bulldogs answered Craig’s block with a quick 2-minute drive resulting in a one-yard T.J. Leep TD. Then, after a good Northern drive stalled, the Bulldogs methodically milked six minutes off the clock before Logan hit Casey Lamping for a scoring strike to narrow the gap to 24-17. From there, Northern was again forced to punt, before Pasalo put the final stamp on the game.
“I think the two biggest things are, we got the win and that feels good Samson said. “But we also found out a lot about what we need to work on and where we need to go from here. We didn’t get our running game going at all today and that was disappointing. We seemed to get pushed around a little in the trenches in the second half and we didn’t come up with some turnovers early in the game when we had chances. Those are all things we can work on and we will. We’ll get better before we play Tech next Saturday.
“But there were things I thought we did well,” he added. “We executed pretty well on offense in the first half, we got a lot of pressure on their quarterback defensively early on and we made some really good stops. I also thought we did some good things on special teams for the first game. So there were some things I was very pleased with, and again, we’re 1-0 right now and we’re happy about that.”
Johnston and O’Brien put up huge numbers for the Lights offensively. Johnston racked up 151 yards on five catches, and he returned 5 punts for 39 yards. O’Brien had five catches for 71 yards, while Lear completed 20 passes for 343 yards and a score with no interceptions. Offensively the Lights gained 390 yards while Western gained 249.
On defense, Northern was led by Pasalo with nine tackles and his game-ending pick. Cornerback Chris Hamilton added eight tackles and a pass breakup, Jordan Van Voast threw in seven tackles and Will Andrews had one sack and three solo tackles.
And while there were plenty of bright spots on an exciting and sunny opening day at Blue Pony Stadium, one stood out above all others to Lear.
“This game sort of goes back to the game we lost to EOU last year when we had a big lead,” Lear said. “It might have looked like that was happening again today. But it just seemed like, this time, with our backs against the wall, we all knew good things would happen for us and they did this time. A.J. made a big play, Ryan Craig made a big play, the defense made stops and we were still at least able to move the ball well enough that we weren’t putting our defense in bad field position in the second half.
“So it was really good that things went our way when we faced some adversity,” he added. “It felt good to know we can respond as a team when our backs are against the wall.”
The 1-0 Lights will now head to Butte this Saturday for a Frontier Conference showdown with Montana Tech (1-1, 0-1). MSU-N returns home on Sept. 17 for its homecoming game with Eastern Oregon.