The Montana State University-Northern football team started the 2012 season in a major offensive slump. Three losses in three games, averaging a scant 13 points per game.
But when the Lights finally broke out of that slump, they did so in an incredibly explosive fashion.
Northern captured its first win of the season by racking up over 600 yards of total offense, by getting a record-setting passing day from junior quarterback Derek Lear and by getting a huge day from multiple receivers as the Lights defeated the UM-Western Bulldogs in a shoot out, 46-39 Saturday afternoon at Blue Pony Stadium.
“It was big to get this win,” Northern junior wide receiver Orin Johnson, who caught the game-winning touchdown with 1:55 left in the contest said. “The last couple of games, those were really tough losses. But this team kept fighting, we really bounced back today. I think we showed how good we can be when we’re playing well.
“I think the biggest thing is, the monkey is off our back now,” MSU-N head coach Mark Samson added. “The kids were feeling a lot of pressure to win, and really stressing after what happened to us on the road the last couple of games. Now, when they come back to practice on Monday, they can relax a little bit because we have that first win under our belt. And I’m really proud of this win and of this team because I thought they were a really resilient group today.”
And not only were the Lights resilient as far as ending a difficult three-game losing streak by beating the Bulldogs for the fourth straight year in Havre, but they were resilient inside the game itself. Because Western, as it has done so many times while playing in Havre, fought to the bitter end.
Northern’s passing attack was outstanding all day long, but the Lights found themselves in a 39-39 deadlock after the Bulldogs went 87 yards in just four plays, and quarterback Jeff Logan scored from eight yards away to tie the game with 6:43 left in the fourth quarter.
But how Northern answered that score is what defined the Lights on Saturday. And they answered with all heart and determination.
The Lights drove 75 yards in eight plays, including a great pitch to Johnson, which gave Northern a first-and-goal from the 9-yard-line with just over two minutes to play. But the adversity Northern faced was far from over even though it looked like the winning score was all but inevitable.
A procedure call, then a holding call backed the Lights all the way up to the 23-yard-line where it was still first-and-goal. From there, Lear scrambled to get back 17 of those yards on two plays, and then he hit Johnson with a perfect strike up the middle for the winning touchdown. The Lights’ defense would have to hang on for a few long heaves by Logan, but ultimately, they were able to end the game and move into the win column for the first time since last November.
“It was a crossing route we run all the time,” Johnson said of the winning TD. “It’s actually one of our best and most effective plays and it’s an easy route for me. I was able to get open and Derek hit me with the perfect pass.”
As a matter of fact, Lear threw a lot of perfect passes on Saturday.
Northern had a would-be TD taken away when the officials said Kyle Johnston didn’t secure the ball on the Lights’ first possession of the first quarter. But on MSU-N’s second possession, Lear made good by hitting a wide open Brandon O’Brien, who had a monster of a day, with a 39-yard TD pass down the left sideline.
Western answered with a field goal near the end of a low-scoring first quarter to make it 6-3 as the Lights had a field goal and a PAT blocked.
But the game didn’t stay low-scoring for long.
Lear struck again on the first play of a wild second quarter when he found Kyle Johnston on a 37-yard TD pass. Western answered that score with a 47-yard bomb from Logan to Rashad Peniston, who also had a huge day for the Bulldogs. And then the Dawgs went ahead when Lear fumbled and Western took advantage of the short field by scoring on a run to go up 17-12 with 9:04 until halftime.
“I thought our offense was resilient today,” Samson said. “We made some mistakes. That fumble in the second quarter was pretty costly, and Western is a really good offensive football team and they kept on pushing us. But our offense kept executing. I thought Derek was really good today, he showed a lot of poise and leadership, and all of our receivers made huge plays in the passing game. I just thought our offense was really resilient and poised.”
Were they ever.
Trailing 17-12, the Lights went back in front when Lear connected on a 20-yard fourth-down conversion to Johnston, then hit Brandt Montelius for a 10-yard score. The MSU-N offense then came right back and went up 25-17 when Lear found O’Brien again, this time on a deep post pattern which went for 75 yards and another score. Northern would have made it an even bigger halftime margin, if not for a strange sequence in the final seconds of the half, as the referees decided to run time of the clock and end the half with Northern facing a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard-line.
“It was a tough game, Western played a great game and they never quit,” O’Brien, who had a career-high in receiving yards said. “But our guys fought right to the end too. Derek (Lear) was a great leader out there today. In the huddle, there was never any doubt in his eyes. He made great throws, he was accurate and deadly with his passes all game long. Our offensive line was great all day and gave him great protection.
“And I’m really proud of all my teammates for never getting down, not after we lost those last two games or today when things got close,” he added.
And things did get very close in a crazy second half which saw four more TD’s in the third frame.
The Lights went up 32-17 when Lear connected with Johnston on an 11-yard score, but Western came right back when Logan scored on a keeper from 23 yards out, making it 32-24 with six minutes left in the third. Northern answered right back as Lear hit Johnson on another crucial fourth-down call, then found O’Brien for his third TD of the day, this time on a perfect fade pattern from seven yards out with 2:01 left in the quarter.
“As far as getting open today, I think it’s about being prepared,” O’Brien said. “Our coaches prepare us for every game so well. And today, we just executed the game plan they prepared us for. My job is to run my routes, make sure I get past guys and I did that today, and Derek just kept throwing perfect balls to me.”
And the Lights would need a few more perfect balls from Lear, as the Bulldogs never gave up. Western scored just before the third quarter ended when Peniston caught a 48-yard bomb from Logan. Peniston also caught the 2-point conversion which left the Lights leading 39-32 at the start of the fourth quarter.
From there, both teams came up with big defensive stops on fourth down, before Western scored the game-tying TD and the Lights then went on their game-winning march.
“I don’t know if the people here realize how good of a football team Western is,” Samson said. “They played very well, especially offensively, and they are really young for the most part. So to win in another shoot-out with them, the way we did today, I am just really proud of our kids for that. It was another crazy game between us and Western for sure and we’re glad to come away with a victory today.”
A crazy game indeed. The offenses combined for over 1,100 yards with Northern racking up a whopping 668 to Western’s 443. Lear completed 32 passes for a career-high 485 yards, which is also a new MSU-N single-game record. He also carried 11 times for 63 yards. O’Brien was seemingly open all day, catching eight balls for 208 yards and three scores. Johnston racked up 127 yards on eight catches, while Johnson grabbed seven balls for 65 yards and Mick Miller caught three passes for 53 yards. In all, Lear connected with eight different receivers, while Stephen Silva rushed for 79 yards on 20 carries.
The Bulldogs were nearly as good on offense as Peniston caught eight passes for 177 yards, while Logan threw for 267 yards and rushed for 65 more. Northern did hold Western freshman Tyrell Braun to just 51 yards on the ground. Braun came in averaging over 80 yards per game. Defensively, Matt Reyant had 10 stops for the Lights while freshman Trevor Baum added nine. Cory Budak and Ryan Craig each had a sack.
“I thought the offense played really well for much of the game,” Samson said. “And when we get rolling like that, you can see we’re pretty tough to stop. But the important thing was, we didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot as much today. We made mistakes, but we came back and executed after those mistakes and that’s something we hadn’t been doing enough of on offense. Defensively, I thought we were pretty good too. Western hurt is with the deep ball today, but I thought our kids played hard and we got some pressure on the quarterback. And when the game was on the line, our defense came up and made some big plays. I think today, we just executed much better than we have the last two weeks, and I thought mentally, our kids were really tough and resilient all game long. This is a really nice win for us.”
A nice and much-needed win. Northern is still 1-3 and behind the eight-ball in the Frontier Conference standings, but the Lights now have some momentum and they get to stay home and play their next two games in Blue Pony Stadium. Next up is a visit from Rocky Mountain College this Saturday, where it will also be homecoming for MSU-N.
“It feels good to get this win out of the way,” Johnson exclaimed. “We knew all along how good we could be, and today we showed it. We gave ourselves a fresh start today and it worked out. Hopefully, this is just the beginning for us.”
MSU-N launches an air attack
Lights are now 1-3; Next up vs RMC on Sept. 29
Lights Notes: Lear’s 485 passing yards eclipsed Jeff Van Nest’s old school record of 417, set in a 2009 win over RMC. His seven TD passes also bested Kyle Samson’s old single-game record of five in one game. O’Brien ran his way into the record books with his 208 yards, which ties him with Andy Smith for the most receiving yards in a game. Smith set that record in a 1999 game against Montana Tech. Northern and Western have now played five straight games at Blue Pony Stadium which have been decided by a touchdown or less. The Lights and Bulldogs won’t meet again this season, and in their only meeting in 2013, Northern will pay a visit to Dillon and Vigilante Stadium.