By Ryan Divish
It just doesn't get any easier for the Montana State University-Northern football team. After being ravaged by injuries and losing two games in a row, the Lights get to play a team that beat them 48-6 last year.
Northern will welcome the 7th- ranked Southern Oregon Raiders to Blue Pony Stadium on Saturday as part of Northern's homecoming activities.
The Raiders, 4-1 on the season, are in the midst of a four-game, 5,592-mile, round-trip road swing. Despite the long distances traveled, the Raiders have been successful winning their first three games of the trip.
Southern Oregon is coming off a 37-13 victory over Rocky Mountain College last week in Billings. But the win didn't come without costs.
SOU All-American running back Dusty McGrorty went down in the second quarter of the game against Rocky with a sprained knee. McGrorty left the game, having already rushed for 156 yards on 12 carries.
According to Southern Oregon's press release, McGrorty will make the trip to Havre and is capable of playing, but he will only play in case of an emergency.
"He's a great running back," said Lights head coach Walt Currie. "We've been seeing him since he was a sophomore. He's a workhorse."
McGrorty's replacement, Caleb Krantz, rushed for 40 yards on 12 carries. While not having McGrorty out there will help, Northern's focus will still be on stopping a Raider rushing attack that averages 226 yards per game.
"We need to stop the run," Currie said. "It's their biggest weapon. It sets up their entire passing game."
SOU's rushing attack plays into Northern's biggest strength, which is its defensive front. In all their games, the Lights have slowed, if not shut down, opposing teams' running games.
But the Raiders aren't going to simply change philosophies because of it. Their offensive line is big, strong and physical.
"They're the most physical team we played last year," Currie said. "And that includes Idaho State."
Last year, the Raiders racked up a total 544 yards of offense in their 48-6 victory. McGrorty scored four touchdowns. Northern's only score came on a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Travis Crawford. The Lights managed only 12 first downs and hurt themselves with four turnovers.
Currie is hoping for a little more offense this week and decided to make a quarterback change.
Junior Chris Hess will take over the quarterbacking duties from senior Brandon Kerkes. Currie benched Kerkes during last week's 34-20 loss to the University of Montana-Western after Kerkes threw four first-half interceptions. Hess and true freshman Mitch Wilkins shared time during the second half and led the Northern offense to 20 second-half points.
Hess will start. And although Hess has taken the majority of snaps with the first team at practice, Currie didn't rule out the possibility that the other two could play in the game.
"We're going to see if Hess can provide a spark," Currie said. "We're going to decide who plays based on momentum. Whatever quarterback has that will play."
One thing is certain. A quarterback who makes a careless turnover won't be in there too long.
"There is no way I am going to start a game off with four turnovers," Currie said. "They just hurt too much."
The turnovers didn't just hurt the Lights last week, they absolutely killed them.
"The defense, for being pretty patchwork, gave us the opportunity to be in the game," Currie said. "And the offense took us right out of it in one half."
The Northern defense, still undermanned in the secondary because of injuries, lost another starter for the game. Senior linebacker Chad Reardon will have to serve a one-game suspension for being ejected from last week's game against Carroll. Middle linebacker Josh Fike will move to the outside position to replace Reardon, while Chinook grad Larry Klingaman will take over duties in the middle.
Southern Oregon is not exactly the ideal opponent for homecoming. However, no game is easy for Northern at this point.
"We're hoping to build on the positives from the second half of last week's game," Currie said.
The Northern-Southern Oregon clash will kick off at 1 p.m. at Blue Pony Stadium.