By Ryan Divish
While the Montana State University-Northern football team can't exactly erase their past record, a new season "the second season" begins Saturday as the Lights host the Rocky Mountain College Battlin Bears at Blue Pony Stadium.
The "second season," as Lights head coach Walt Currie calls it, is when teams begin playing opponents for the second time this season. It's a unique feature of the five team Frontier Conference, and it offers redemption for past mistakes and losses. Perhaps no team in the conference is looking for more redemption than the Lights.
Besides redemption, Northern, 1-5 overall and 1-3 in the conference, will also be looking for a little revenge against Rocky. The Bears trounced Northern, 45-6, on Sept. 14 in Billings.
"I think we're a better football team than we were then," Currie said.
Much has changed since that game for both teams. Rocky looked to be a team to be reckoned with in the Frontier led by quarterback Benton Johnson. However the Bears and Johnson, have fallen on hard times. Rocky has dropped three straight games, and Johnson has lost some of his luster, as well as some of his playing time. Backup Adam Sanchez has replaced Johnson in each of the last three game because Johnson's ineffectiveness.
Rocky head coach Clay Moose hasn't benched Johnson or named Sanchez the starter. It really doesn't matter to Currie who plays because it's Rocky's offensive system, not the quarterback that the Lights must deal with.
"They're about the same," Currie said of Rocky's quarterbacks. "Sanchez may be a little more mobile."
But Rocky's recent turmoil is nothing compared what the Lights have gone through since the Rocky game. The Lights experienced the high of defeating Montana Tech a week later, and the lows of their own three game losing streak that followed the win. During that three week span, Northern has been plagued by a rash of injuries especially in the defensive secondary.
Like Rocky, Northern has been fighting through some quarterback problems as well. In the past three games, Northern's quarterback position has been a revolving carousel of senior Brandon Kerkes, junior Chris Hess and freshman Mitch Wilkins. Kerkes started the games against Rocky, Tech and UM-Western. Last week against Southern Oregon, Hess started but was largely ineffective. This week will be Wilkins turn to start.
"(Wilkins) will make a few mistakes," Currie said. "But they've gotten less and less frequent each game he has played. But he gets rid of the ball quick and he certainly doesn't lack confidence."
Wilkins job will be to resurrect an offense that has faded badly since the Tech game. The Lights need to move the football with consistency and stay on the field.
"As long as we don't make any huge mistakes like turnovers, we should be able to move the ball," Currie said.
While Northern's quarterback position has been a carousel, its defensive secondary has been more like a care unit. The secondary is trying to limp its way through the season. The Lights lost starting cornerback Nathaniel Walters for the season and just lost utility back Brent Finneman for at least two weeks with a broken foot.
Finneman injured the foot about two weeks ago and tried to play through the pain. However, it became too much and greatly affected his effectiveness. The remainder of the secondary is nowhere near healthy with its starters playing all fighting through a multitude of injuries.
"I know they're beat up pretty bad," Currie said. "They don't complain too much, but I know they're still hurting."
The lack of depth in the secondary isn't exactly ideal for facing Rocky's "basketball on turf" offense. To add some depth to the secondary, wide receiver Nick Arnold has been working with the defense. Arnold, who played free safety in high school will be there for emergency use, but will still take turns at wide receiver.
Northern did receive some good news this week. Starting tailback Travis Crawford will suit up this weekend and will play. He won't start but will see plenty of action.
"He's looked good in practice this week," Currie said.
It hasn't gotten to desperation for the Lights, but it's close. Both Northern and Rocky are in desperate need of a victory.
"I really want this victory bad," Currie said. "We're into the second season now and this critical game."
Northern and Rocky will kick off on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Blue Pony Stadium. The game be heard on 92.5 FM-KPQX.