Right now, the Montana State University-Northern football team is feeling like a great baseball hitter in a slump.
The Lights are close, but they can’t seem to come up with the big base hit when they need it most.
But after two straight losses by a combined four points on the road, the Lights are hoping the friendly confines of Blue Pony Stadium will be just what they need to break out. Northern (0-3, 0-3) hosts the UM-Western Bulldogs (1-2, 1-2) Saturday. Kickoff at Blue Pony Stadium is set for 1 p.m.
But as much as MSU-N is glad to be home, after a three-point loss on the last play of the game at Eastern Oregon two weeks ago, and a devastating 21-20 loss at Dickinson State last Saturday, a loss in which the Blue Hawks erased a 20-7 Northern lead with eight minutes left in the game, the Lights know it’s going to take more than the Blue Pony Stadium turf for them to break a three-game losing streak and beat the Bulldogs.
“It’s a very challenging time for our football team,” Northern head coach Mark Samson said. “But the kids have remained pretty upbeat and we’ve had really good practices this week. Of course we’ve got to have that carry over to Saturday’s game. We have to have that positive attitude, that belief that we’re going to win and the execution all show up on Saturday.”
Execution has been the key to Northern’s struggles over the last two weeks. The Lights are averaging a Frontier Conference worst 13 points per game, and that’s coming from an offense that totaled nearly 500 yards per outing last season. Production is down across the board, as Derek Lear, who led the Frontier in passing and was second in total offense a season ago, is only averaging 185 yards passing this season and is just fifth in the Frontier in total offense. Northern’s run game has been pretty solid, as the Lights are the fourth-best rushing team in the league. Senior Justin Montelius has been excellent, averaging over 30 yards per game in a backup and fullback role. But Stephen Silva is only averaging 66 yards per game, which is well below the 102 yards per he averaged a year ago.
And the Lights have really lacked the big play this season. As a team, the Northern offense is averaging 5.4 yards per play. And it isn’t turnovers which have hurt them, it’s been penalties and missed opportunities, and it’s something Samson says has to be corrected right now.
The injury big has also hit the Lights hard on offense, with both Brandon O’Brien and Kyle Johnston missing games due to injury. O’Brien returned last week to catch two touchdowns, but is still considered banged up, while Johnston missed the DSU game and his status is questionable for the Western affair.
“It’s really hard to put a finger on why we’ve struggled offensively,” he said. “We just aren’t executing at the crucial times. There are parts of the game where we look like a very good football team, but at key moments, we don’t look good at all. We have mistakes and penalties at the worst possible time and it’s just been killing us.
“This week, our focus has to be, that everyone on the field is going to do what they’re supposed to do,” he added. “Our focus has to be, that each man out there is going to execute when we need them too. That’s what we’ve been really struggling with this season. Every player, and every coach for that matter, has to do what they’re supposed to this week.”
Northern’s offense was highly-touted coming into the season, but it’s been the defense which has really given the Lights chances to win this season, and they’ll have to come up big again on Saturday. Northern is fourth in the league in scoring defense, and third in the Frontier in total defense. The Lights have been balanced against both the run and the pass, while Western’s offense is equally balanced. The Bulldogs average 444 total yards per game, which is second in the conference, while they pass for 259 yards and run for 185 more, which is third and fourth in the Frontier, respectively.
Individually, the Lights have been getting big games from converted fullback James Chandless at middle linebacker. Chandless has recorded 24 tackles in the last two games, since stepping in for the injured Jared Rohrback, who’s status for the reminder of the season is still uncertain. Fellow linebackers Jordan Van Voast and David Arteaga, as well as safeties Matt Reyant and Josh Baum are also all among the Top 15 tacklers in the Frontier.
But as good as Northern’s defense has been, the Lights haven’t been creating turnovers, and Samson said his team needs that in order to move forward.
“The defense has played as hard and as well as they can and they’ve been playing really well pretty much the entire season,” Samson said. “In 12 quarters of football, our defense has had really two bad quarters, so that’s pretty darn good. I feel like we need to get more turnovers, that’s something we haven’t gotten out of our defense this season, but overall, they’ve played very well and they’ve certainly given us chances to win the last two football games.”
And the Lights are hoping that trend continues Saturday against a Western team which is young, but balanced.
On offense, Western is led by veteran quarterback Jeff Logan (6-1, 197), who’s in his fourth year of starting. Logan has missed time due to injury this season, but he’s expected to be ready to go against the Lights on Saturday. Logan also has a veteran wide receiver in junior Rashad Peniston, but the big surprise this season has been the Bulldogs rushing attack. Freshman Tyrell Braun (5-11, 183) is fourth in the Frontier in rushing at 84 yards per game, and the Bulldogs have been efficient running the football despite playing with a very young offensive line.
“They (Bulldogs) are a solid offensive football team,” Samson said. “Jeff Logan is a very good quarterback and he throws the ball well. And their running game has been very efficient this season. They are a lot more balanced than the Western team’s of old, but they have looked really good on offense this season, and they are going to be a big challenge for our defense.”
Defensively, Western’s strength is its linebacking crew in its 3-4 defense. Sophomore Kasey Griffith (5-8) and junior Will Fields (5-8) are not big, but they are tackling machines and they have the speed to fly to the ball. Freshman A.J. Wilson is a big-time talent in the middle of the defense, while safety Jesse McCloud has two interceptions this season, and defensive ends Phil Selin and Kelly Houle the squad in tackles for loss. The Bulldogs, who lost a heartbreaker to Montana Tech in double-overtime last Saturday don’t start a single senior on defense.
“They are very young on defense,” Samson said. “They aren’t real big either. But they have a bunch of kids who are talented and athletic and fast and they have been very good defensively the last couple of weeks. So we’re going to have to play smart, mistake-free football on offense against them in order to
to be successful.”
And to be successful, the Lights need to believe they can be. They can’t press and stress over needing to win, they just have to go out and believe they can win, and above all else, execute when the game is close, because Northern and Western have played three straight barnburners at Blue Pony Stadium. Last season, the Lights beat Western 24-7 in Havre as a Logan hail mary pass was intercepted to end that game. And in 2010, Northern outlasted Western in overtime at Blue Pony Stadium, so things will likely get tight on Saturday.
“We have to be prepared, as a team, to do whatever it takes to win,” Montelius said. “That’s our motto right now. We’re not looking ahead, or looking back. It’s tough to lose the last two weeks like we did, but right now, we just have to be willing to do whatever it takes to get this win.
“They (Bulldogs) are a really good football team,” Samson added. “That’s kind of the way it’s going to be in our league this year. No one is heads and shoulders above anyone else, and I think every team is capable of winning games on a given Saturday.
“And we just have to believe we can win,” he continued. “We have to play with urgency this week, but not play with a tremendous amount of pressure on ourselves. We have to play fast and physical on both sides of the ball, and above everything else, we have to eliminate the mistakes that have been killing us and make plays when we have to have them. That’s what it’s going to take to get the job done this week.”
Saturday’s game between Northern and Western will kick off at 1 p.m. at Blue Pony Stadium. Because of the new Frontier Conference schedule, this will be the only time the Lights and Bulldogs meet this season. Northern is also starting a three-game home stand, which also has the Lights facing Rocky Mountain College next Saturday and Southern Oregon on Oct. 13.
Hungry for a win
MSU-Northern Lights (0-3) vs UM-Western Bulldogs (1-2)
Saturday at 1 p.m.
at Blue Pony Stadium
Radio: 92.5 KPQX FM
Internet: www.havredailynews.com or www.msun.edu/athletics
See the Game Day inside today's Havre Daily News