By Kim Staudinger
The Montana State University-Northern Lights took to the field Saturday against the University of Montana-Western Bulldogs knowing the chances were good to come away with a win.
What the Lights didn't expect was to lose head coach Walt Currie to a second-quarter ejection. Nor did they expect to lose the 23-21 contest on a heart-wrenching last-second field goal.
More upsetting to Currie, who was kicked out of the game with 1:16 remaining in the first half after two consecutive unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, was the fact that the Lights botched all three extra-point attempts, which would have made up the two-point margin of victory.
"Those extra points were pretty important," Currie said. "But there were other places we could have won it, too. We had it won up until the last few seconds."
Clinging to a one-point lead with four minutes remaining and Western on the Lights' four-yard line, junior defensive end Kino Detrick emerged with what appeared to be the game-saving play. Detrick ambushed quarterback Travis Kirby from his blind side, forcing him to fumble. Seth Pomeroy jumped on the ball, giving the Lights possession and preventing Western's sure-fire scoring opportunity.
Over the next two minutes, Northern ate up the clock with six straight running plays, but was forced to punt with 1:35 left as quarterback Brandon Kerkes fell 12 yards short of the first down on Northern's second third down opportunity of the possession.
Western got the ball at the 29 yard line and completed two key third-down passes, totaling 32 yards and giving the Bulldogs good field position to attempt the field goal. Eric Zahler's game-winning 42-yard field goal barely cleared the crossbar as time expired.
"When you have a game won right up until the last second and you lose it, that's a frustrating feeling," Currie said.
Earlier in the quarter, Northern failed to score a touchdown when junior tailback Travis Crawford dropped a 17-yard pass in the end zone with six minutes left in the game, forcing Northern to attempt a field goal. Sophomore Kris Marshall converted the 36-yard field goal, giving the Lights a 21-20 lead with 5:31 left to play.
Western relied heavily on its passing game, totaling 364 yards, with another 66 yards rushing. Northern had more offensive yards in the game, with a more balanced attack with 284 yards passing and 206 rushing.
"If you give them time to throw, they will find someone open," Currie said. "I thought (Kino) did a good job at knowing when (the Bulldogs) were going to blitz and stopping them."
The Bulldogs took a 7-0 lead with 17 seconds left in the first quarter, scoring on nine plays for 99 yards. The Lights came back early in the second quarter off a 64-yard pass from Kerkes to Billy Templer. Western blocked the kick by Tanner Smith for the extra point.
Western added a field goal with 2:25 left in the half, creating a 10-6 deficit for the Lights. But the true fireworks of the second quarter came when Currie was ejected from the game.
Northern had the ball and the first down on Western's 27-yard line. Kerkes threw a pass to senior Andy Smith. The official called Smith out of bounds, but Currie and his team disagreed.
"It looked like he had a foot inbounds, so I yelled that it is legal in college when you have just one foot inbounds," Currie said, who had not been ejected from a game before Saturday.
Currie said he picked up the flag and asked what it was for. The official told him it was for unsportsmanlike conduct because he was out of his coach's box. Currie said he then "threw the flag back where I found it, where it came from. I was just questioning the call. I thought that was legal."
The two unsportsmanlike conduct calls only added to the 12 costly penalties Northern had, taking away 121 yards from the offense.
"It's kind of strange," Currie said regarding the penalties. "We don't get them when we are out of town, so you wonder why we are getting them at home."
The Lights outscored the Bulldogs in the third quarter 12-7 on touchdowns by Ryan Utterback and Kerkes. The Bulldogs' touchdown came on a 1-yard run by Duane Wock, but the Lights took the lead 18-17 into the fourth.
Zahler successfully kicked a 39-yard field goal with 8:53 remaining in the game, giving the lead back to Western. Both teams added field goals, including the last-second game-winner by Western, to make the final score 23-21.