There’s no question that the Eastern Oregon University offense looked like a juggernaut for pretty much the entire game in Saturday’s 48-29 EOU win at 23rd-ranked Montana State University-Northern.
But it was a series of strange plays which got the Mounties jump-started, and which also set the Lights back.
Northern looked like the juggernaut early on. The Lights took the opening kickoff and needed just eight plays to get inside the EOU 10-yard-line. In that drive, Derek Lear was sharp, completing passes of 20 and 10 yards to Kyle Johnston and also scrambling for a first down. But a pass to Brandon O’Brien which fatefully wound up in the hands of all-conference EOU linebacker Marc-Avery Airhart changed everything.
O’Brien was blindly hit hard by EOU’s Nick Magrone just as the ball hit his hands, and instead of falling incomplete, Airhart was there to snatch the ball up and end Northern’s first scoring chance.
The MSU-N defense responded right away and looked as through it forced the Mounties into a three-and-out. But against a stiff wind, backed up deep in his own territory, EOU head coach Tim Camp opted to roll the dice and called a fake punt on fourth-and-four. The timing of the fake, the first quarter with no score and 10:04 still on the clock caught Northern completely off guard and EOU’s freshman punter, Luis Ortiz rumbled almost 15 yards untouched for a first down.
Five plays later, the Mounties had a 7-0 lead and the touchdown pass from Chris Ware to Dillon Bedford was the first of six scores on six straight possessions by EOU.
“We moved the ball really well right away,” Northern head coach Mark Samson said. “But like a few other times in the game, we didn’t finish drives. That interception down by the goal line at the start of the game was pretty costly and the fake punt right after, it just seemed to give them (Mounties) a lot of momentum early on.”
Johnson and Johnston
Despite Saturday’s tough loss, the MSU-Northern offense had plenty of positives. Especially the performances of wide receivers Kyle Johnston and Orin Johnson.
Johnson, a sophomore from Cut Bank had a team-high 11 receptions and also scored on a 2-yard pitch from Lear in the first half. Johnson had been slowed by injury in fall camp, but he made big contributions on Saturday against the Mountaineers.
Meanwhile, Johnston continued to impress. He leads the Frontier in receiving yards per game and he didn’t disappoint on Saturday. Johnston, who stands just 5-8 showed off his blazing speed and excellent route-running by catching seven balls for 79 yards, as well as two touchdowns. He also was stellar on a 60-yard punt return that was wiped out by a holding call. Northern also got Johnston involved in the running game with a double reverse for 13 yards.
Getting to Ware
There’s no doubt EOU senior quarterback Chris Ware put on a show on Saturday. Ware was efficient and sharp in the passing game and it was his scrambling ability which really wound up hurting the Lights.
But Ware didn’t stay clean the entire day thanks to the Northern defense never giving up. Senior all-american Will Andrews got to Ware twice in the backfield, adding to an already growing career sack total. Andrews also just missed a third sack by a mere shoe string on a day when he racked up two sacks and six total tackles. Northern also got first-career sacks from sophomore Than Schopp as well as Logan Nathe.
And two of the four sacks on the remarkable EOU signal caller came when the Mounties were trying to get greedy. EOU had a 28-14 lead with only a few tics left in the first half, but the Mounties weren’t content. Ware dropped back and looked to go deep twice before the half ended, but Northern dropped him twice and ended in the threat.
“We knew that they had a great defense, they have a great front seven,” Ware said.
One road streak came to an end with high success Saturday at Blue Pony Stadium, while another is about to begin.
With Saturday’s win, EOU has opened the season with successive road wins at Montana Tech, Carroll College and Northern. And now the Mounties, who are alone in first place in the Frontier Conference standings get to finally go home where they’ll face winless UM-Western this Saturday.
For Northern, the road life is just beginning. The Lights (2-1) will travel to Billings this Saturday for a showdown with nationally-ranked Rocky Mountain College, then visit Carroll College on Oct. 1. Following those two games, the Lights have a bye before wrapping up a three-game road stretch at UM-Western on Oct. 15.
The Lights will finally be back in Blue Pony Stadium on Oct. 22 to host Montana Tech.