A late interception by A.J. Pasalo preserved a season-opening win for the Montana State University-Northern Lights over the UM-Western Bulldogs.
That was nearly two months ago in Havre. And as the Lights prepare to open the second half of Frontier Conference play against the Bulldogs Saturday in Dillon, that Sept. 3 game in Havre seems like a long time ago.
MSU-Northern's Mick Miller (left) runs away from a Western defender during a Frontier Conference football game last month in Havre.
Northern (3-2, 3-2) comes into Saturday’s showdown with the Bulldogs fresh off its bye week. Western (1-4, 1-5) on the other hand, played last week at FCS and future Big Sky Conference member North Dakota. That game came a week after the Bulldogs picked up their first win of the season, a dismantling of Montana Tech in Butte. Western also nearly knocked off Eastern Oregon three weeks ago on the road, so Northern head coach Mark Samson knows the Lights’ 24-17 win over UM-W in Havre doesn’t suggest any easier of a game this time around.
“I think they (Bulldogs) are playing with a lot more confidence now,” Samson said. “They made a change at quarterback and it’s seemed to have sparked their offense a little.
“I think at the beginning of the season, a lot of people didn’t expect much from Western this year,” he continued. “But they showed up here they are a pretty good football team. They gave us a tough game and we expect them to do the same down there.”
The Bulldogs did make the switch in week three to senior Zach McRae, who was replaced by Jeff Logan last season. McRae has given the Bulldog offense life in the passing game. In his three starts, Western averaged 34 points per game, and McRae has thrown the ball downfield much more – a traditional Western offensive gameplan. The Bulldogs can also run. Senior Charlie Dotson is a workhorse type back, and while the Lights held him in check in Havre, sophomore running back T.J. Leep has spelled Dotson nicely and he gave Northern’s defense fits the first time out. Casey Lamping and Colton Woods are dangerous wide receivers for the Bulldogs, but Lamping, along with McRae are listed as questionable for Saturday’s game after both suffered injuries last week at UND.
The Bulldogs have also picked up their defense as of late. Western is fourth in the league in scoring defense, yielding 30 points per game, while they are third against the pass. And Northern is the top-rated passing team in the Frontier, as well as tops in total offense. The Lights average 297 yards per game passing and are gaining 448 yards per.
“Offensively, Western has gone back to more of their traditional style,” Samson said. “They run a lot of shotgun, they throw it around a lot more now than the first time we saw them, but they are still balanced. So they’ll be a good challenge for our defense. On defense, they’re not a big team, but they try to confuse you a lot, they run a lot of different blitzes, so our offensive line will have to play well.”
And Samson also wants his team to score more touchdowns. The Lights lead or are near the top of the league in most offensive categories, with Derek Lear leading the conference in total offense and passing, Orin Johnson, Kyle Johnston and Brandon O’Brien among the league leaders in receiving and Stephen Silva third in the league in rushing. But where MSU-N has fallen short is scoring. The Lights can move the ball on anyone, but they average just 26 points per game which is fourth-best in the conference.
“If there is one thing I haven’t been particularly happy with our offense is, we haven’t finished drives,” Samson said. “We’ve left a lot of points on the field. I can go all the way back to the first Western game and count at least nine touchdowns we’ve left out there, where were in the red zone or had good field position. So that’s something we’ve got to get corrected this week, and down the stretch.”
And make no mistake, Saturday’s game marks the stretch run for the Lights. Northern is a game out of first place in the Frontier and has three of its last five games at home. Saturday’s game against Western will end a month-long road odyssey for the Lights, but it will also be the beginning of a push towards the Frontier title and the NAIA playoffs, both of which are in Northern’s reach if the Lights can keep winning.
“Western is going to play us very hard, they will be fired up to have us in their pace,” Samson said. “But I think just like they are a better football team right now, so are we. We weren’t nearly as well-prepared to play them the first time because they were brand new and we didn’t know a lot about what they did. This time, we have a much better grasp of what to expect and I think our kids have prepared really well for them.
“This is the home stretch,” he added. “And this is the first game in that home stretch and out kids are fired up to line up and get the job done.”
The Lights and Bulldogs will kick off at 1 p.m. Saturday in Dillon. Northern finally returns home next Saturday to host Montana Tech. Saturday's game can be seen live on the internet by loggin on to www.havredailynews.com.