The Montana State University-Northern Lights and Montana Tech Orediggers have something in common right now. Both teams are angry, hungry and coming off close and heartbreaking losses last Saturday.
So something will have to give when the Lights and Orediggers collide Saturday afternoon at Blue Pony Stadium in Havre.
Northern (3-3, 3-3) suffered a difficult setback last Saturday at UM-Western. Just when it looked like the Lights were going to force overtime after erasing a 27-12 Western lead in the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs nipped the Lights via a 31-yard game-winning field goal as time expired. The loss was the second straight on the road for a Lights team which was trying to keep pace in the Frontier Conference standings.
Now, MSU-N will have to regroup and the Lights will try to get things right against a Tech team which is in very unfamiliar territory. The Orediggers (0-6, 1-6) have lost six straight games after opening the season with a narrow win over Southern Oregon back in August. Tech, under first-year head coach Chuck Morrell is a full two games in back of Western for last place in the Frontier standings after narrow 22-15 loss at Eastern Oregon last Saturday, but Northern head coach Mark Samson knows the Diggers’ won’t quit playing this season and they’d like nothing more than to come in and win in Blue Pony Stadium, just as they did a year ago.
“They (Orediggers) have had a pretty tough season,” Samson said. “But they’ve also played well. They played well last week and they are like us in that, they probably feel like they should have won a couple more games than they have.
“So we are fully expecting them to come in here and play very hard, they always do,” he added. “They are hungry for a win and we have to be ready for that. But we’re a hungry team too. Our kids want to get right back after it after last week and it’s been a good week of practice and our guys will be ready to go on Saturday.”
Despite their difficult start to the season, which included a 24-12 loss to Northern last month in Butte, the Orediggers are a team that has to be reckoned with. Tech has found a good running back in freshman Pat Hansen who averages 98 yards per contest. Hansen also benefits from a stout offensive line, while sophomore quarterback Brian Schwarzkoph has done a good job running Tech’s no-huddle, up-tempo offense. Wide receiver Craig Halko is a top threat in the passing game and has had good games against the Lights in past. The Orediggers are last in scoring but they can rack up yards and are third in the conference in total offense.
And that means Northern’s defense will have to stand up, just as it did in Butte. The Lights got a solid game from sophomore defensive end Ryan Craig in last week’s loss to Western, while senior end Will Andrews leads the Frontier in sacks with five. Andrews also leads the league in tackles for loss, while Landry See and Jordan Van Voast are amongst the league leaders in tackles. Jared Rohrback is also getting healthy and has started to play well at the linebacker position for the Lights.
“I thought our defense played a great game at Tech,” Samson said. “And with the offense they run, we’ll have to play that way again. It’s about staying focused and making plays and knowing your assignments against an offense like that. And they do have some good weapons on offense so we’ll need to play a good game defensively.”
And Tech’s defense will be even more challenged. The Orediggers have an outstanding defensive back in Logan Ledgerwood, while defensive tackle Marcus Johnson is a stout run stopper and linebacker Kevin Schey is a veteran who makes plays. But Northern is No. 1 in the Frontier in total offense, No. 2 in passing and No. 2 in rushing, so the Lights’ balanced attack will be a handful for the young Tech defense. And running the football is big this time of year, and Northern junior Stephen Silva is starting to come on strong. Silva rushed for 189 yards last week and is up to 625 yards for the season. Silva also averages almost seven yards per carry, and along with fullback James Chandless and senior Justin Montelius, the Lights are really building a solid run game.
“Offensively, I thought we did some really good things for a half against Western,” Samson said. “I thought all of our running backs had a really good game. It was nice to get James Chandless a little more involved because he’s such a powerful back around the goal line.
“This week, we just need to be more consistent,” he added. “We’ve been pretty good about not turning the ball over, but we need to continue to get better at finishing drives. And we’ll definitely need to get off to a better start this week against a team that’s going to come in here and play very hard.”
Northern and Tech have had some great battles over the years, including last month in Butte. But the Lights and Orediggers are now fighting for different things which makes Saturday’s game so intriguing. The Lights are tied with Rocky Mountain College for second in the Frontier and still have the Bears and Carroll at home this season. So Northern needs every win to keep pace at the top of the league.
Meanwhile, Tech is playing to be a spoiler, the Diggers’ are playing to have a strong second half of the season and building for the future. The pride the Orediggers have showed in their gutty effort last weekend at EOU and they’ll bring that same pride to Havre, where games between the Lights and Diggers’ always seem to be close.
“It will be a tough, physical football game,” Samson said. “It always is when Tech and Northern play each other. We’re ready for that type of game this weekend. And we’re ready to move on from what happened last weekend. The kids have had a really good attitude this week. They’re focused and they’re excited for this game. They’re excited to finally be back at home.”
Saturday’s game between the Lights and Orediggers will kick off at 1 p.m. at Blue Pony Stadium. Northern will celebrate Military Appreciation Day Saturday. MSU-N is back on the road next week to face Eastern Oregon.
Northern fans can follow the game on twitter at twitter/havredaily. For more coverage, see today's MSU-Northern Game Day inside the Havre Daily News.