Update, 8:00 p.m. Friday: Lights will play Rocky at 6 p.m. Saturday night at Daylis Stadium in Billings, provided Northern can travel Saturday morning.
The 2012 season hasn’t gone exactly how the Montana State University-Northern football team had planned when the Lights convened for fall drills back in the hot August sun.
But Northern has a chance to end the season on a high note and go into 2013 with some much-needed momentum.
The Lights (3-6) will get that chance Saturday when they travel to Billings to face the Rocky Mountain College Battlin’ Bears (4-4, 5-5) in the regular season finale for both teams. Kickoff is set for 12 p.m. at Herb Klindt Field.
And while Northern has had a lot of success in recent games against Rocky in recent years, Saturday’s game should be a battle of wills as both teams come into the matchup riding high after emotional wins last weekend.
RMC is feeling especially good after shocking then No. 16 Carroll College 31-28 last Saturday in Billings. The Bears beat the Saints for the first time in 12 years and it snapped a 24-game losing streak to Carroll, and they did it without starting quarterback Bryce Baker, and without their top two rushers.
“Rocky will be up emotionally after beating Carroll,” Northern head coach Mark Samson said recently. “We expect them to be ready for us.
“I think the big thing is, both teams want to finish the season strong,” Samson added. “Both teams are playing pretty well right now and both teams want to win the last game. So it’s going to be a heck of a football game.”
Like the Bears, the Lights are feeling good heading into Saturday’s showdown with RMC. Northern snapped its second three-game losing streak of the season by thrashing the Dickinson State Blue Hawks 42-10 last Saturday at Blue Pony Stadium. In that game, Northern gained 29 first downs and over 400 yards of total offense, while the MSU-N defense held DSU to just 13 first downs, less than 250 total yards and just 66 yards on the ground.
It was Northern’s most complete performance on defense this season, and it wasn’t a surprise, considering the Lights held Montana Tech scoreless for 30 straight minutes two weeks ago in Butte. In their last six quarters of football, the Lights have given up just 10 points and one offensive touchdown.
“The defense played really well,” Samson said. In the win over DSU. “I thought we did a lot of good things. And that goes back to how we played in the second half against Tech too. But we’ll have to be good again against Rocky because we know what they’re capable of on offense.”
Northern Is led on defense by senior linebacker James Chandless, who 90 total tackles on the season, which is second in the Frontier Conference. Fellow linebacker Jordan Van Voast also has 74 stops as does safety Josh Baum, while Mike Carbone has six sacks and Ryan Craig has five.
But as well as the MSU-N defense is playing, the Lights will have their hands full with the resurgent Bears. Last week, true freshman Tyler Lott stepped in for Baker and orchestrated a brilliant game-plan in the win over Carroll. Baker is expected to play this week, and while he struggled in a 42-19 loss to Northern back in September in Havre, he’s still capable of making plays with his arm and his feet. Meanwhile, backup linebacker Pete Anderson was moved over to running back for the Carroll game because the Bears were down three backs due to injury. And all Anderson did was rush for 159 yards and a score against what was the best run defense in the country. Anderson will likely get the nod this week against the Lights, and he’s a running back Northern hasn’t seen before.
On the other side of the ball, Northern has had its share of success against highly-touted RMC defenses in recent years. The Lights swept the Bears a year ago, and averaged 27 points and over 400 yards of offense in doing so. And the key has been the running of Stephen Silva.
Silva, who will play his last game as a Light Saturday, has twice broke Northern’s single-game rushing record against RMC, including back in September when he rushed for 217 yards. In all, Silva has four 200-yard games in his career and three have come against RMC. Silva comes into Saturday’s contest just 210 yards shy of 3,000 for his career.
But Northern will also try and exploit a banged up Bears’ defense with a balanced attack. Junior quarterback Derek Lear has thrown for 2,565 yards and 24 touchdowns this season, while junior Brandon O’Brien has caught 41 passes for 725 yards and eight scores. O’Brien also averages a conference-best 17.2 yards per reception. The Lights also have a host of targets for Lear to throw too, including Kyle Johnston, Orin Johnson, Mick Miller and Brandt Montelius. Johnston has 34 catches for nearly 600 yards this season, while Johnson has 39 catches for 472 yards.
RMC's defense is indeed the walking-wounded, the Bears are still stingy and they’re still coming off perhaps one of the biggest wins in school history. And they’ll be out to try and stop one of the most prolific offenses in the NAIA. Northern averages 459 total yards per game, while the Bears are ranked second in the Frontier in total defense. RMC only allows 24 points per game, while the Lights average 26 points per outing.
Linebacker Jacob Barit (6-2, 240) has been a force all season long, and he leads the Bears with 76 tackles to go along with 4.5 sacks. Fellow linebacker Travis Bertelsen also leads the Frontier with five interceptions, while Eric Buer and Graham have combined for four more.
But with three straight wins over the Bears in hand, and having won two of the last three in Billings, the Lights are going into Saturday’s season finale with confidence. And Samson is hoping his team doesn’t just end the season on a high note, he’s hoping the end of 2012 is the start of something big in 2013.
“It would be big for us to end the season on a high note,” Samson said. “It would be great to go into the offseason having played well at the end of the year and use all of that going into next year.”
Saturday’s Frontier Conference finale between Northern and Rocky kicks off at 12 p.m. in Billings. The Lights can finish as high as a tie for fourth in the Frontier standings with a win. At press time, Saturday's game is still on but could be moved to Sunday due to the storm.
MSU-Northern Lights (3-6, 3-6) at Rocky Mountain Battlin' Bears
Saturday at 12 p.m.
at Herb Klindt Field
Radio: 92.5 KPQX FM
Internet: www.havredailynews.com or www.msun.edu/athletics