By Ryan Divish
Going up against the toughest passing attack in the Frontier Conference with an undermanned defensive secondary is not how Montana State University-Northern head football coach Walt Currie envisioned playing the University of Montana-Western Bulldogs.
But that's exactly what Currie and his team will have to deal with on Saturday when they face Western in Dillon.
The Lights' secondary unit is more like a M.A.S.H. unit right now. According to defensive backs coach Jeff Currie, only one of the seven players he started out with at the beginning of the season is completely healthy. That player, Jason Pepos, is only a freshman and has seen limited playing time. The rest of the unit are walking wounded.
Starting cornerback Nathaniel Walters is out indefinitely with a knee injury caused by a late hit in last week's game against Carroll. Northern's other starting corner Bryan Kott is still fighting the effects of an unrepaired torn anterior cruciate ligament. Kott will continue playing through the pain, but is limited by a bulky knee brace.
Currie had hoped to replace Walters with utility defensive back Brent Finneman. However, Finneman separated his shoulder against Carroll and hasn't practiced most of the week. Finneman will play against Western, but his effectiveness is uncertain.
Both of Northern's starting safeties, Brendan Scott and Brenden Dennehy, are fighting through hip injuries, which limited their practice time this week. Scott and Dennehy's backup, Chris Jackson, has played the majority of the season with a broken bone in his foot. It has come to the point that freshman Cort Milks, who Northern had hoped to redshirt, will make the trip. If it becomes necessary, the Lights will take Milks out of his redshirt and play him.
"Right now, I have no idea of who's going to play," Walt Currie said.
The questions in the secondary have greatly changed Northern's defensive scheme going in. Instead of a mixture of looks, the Lights will most likely have to come with maximum pressure on Western's quarterback, Travis Kirby.
"Hopefully we can get some pressure on him and hurry him into some throws," Currie said.
However, by pressuring Kirby it leaves the Northern secondary susceptible to big plays. Kirby, a two-year starter, has plenty of weapons at his disposal.
Newcomer Jake Larson has made an immediate impression on the Frontier Conference. Larson, who transferred to Western after competing on the University of Montana track team last season, has 19 catches on the season for an impressive 21.7 yards per catch. He is athletic enough to make people miss or go up over shorter defensive backs to make catches.
Besides Larson, Dallas Mock and Brandon de Leon are formidable receivers that bring different strengths. Mock is a big, physical possession receiver, while de Leon is a speedster with ability to make people miss.
But Western's weapons aren't limited to the receiver position. The Bulldogs have formidable running backs led by Scott Glessner and Bryan Agbalog. Glessner leads the conference in rushing at 78 yards per game, while Agbalog is a good receiver out of the backfield.
It's a double edged sword Northern faces. They are too beat up to sit back and try and cover all of Western's receivers, but rushing Kirby leaves the banged up secondary in one-on-one situations.
Perhaps, Northern's best defense would be to keep the Bulldog offense off the field. For the Lights to do that, they kickstart an offense that was limited to 133 total yards in last week's loss to Carroll.
"I don't think we executed very well," Currie said of the offensive production. "It looked like we were flat and everybody was just going through the motions."
Northern must control the line of scrimmage, establish the run and make first downs. If they can do that, it will eat up the clock and limit Western's offensive possessions.
"Western hasn't played many running teams this season," Currie said. "We had success last year against them with the run, we need to again this year."
The Lights offense should be aided by the return of junior wide receiver Tanner Woodward. After missing two games with a stress fracture, Woodward should be in uniform on Saturday. Woodward brings speed and some big play ability to the Lights' offense.
After beating Montana Tech earlier in the season, the Lights seemed to take a step forward as a team. However, last weeks loss to Carroll was almost like taking two steps back.
"Hopefully we can regroup and take another step forward," Currie said.
Game time on Saturday is scheduled for 1 p.m. and can be heard on 92.5 KPQX- FM.