The Montana State University-Northern Lights haven’t left Havre since their record-setting 46-39 win over the UM-Western Bulldogs last Saturday afternoon.
But make no mistake, it’s homecoming and the Lights are gearing up for another high-flying offense coming to town.
On Saturday afternoon, the Lights (1-3, 1-3) will host the Rocky Mountain College Battlin’ Bears (2-2, 3-2) in a Frontier Conference East Division showdown, and if last week was any indication, Saturday’s game, which kicks off at 1 p.m. inside Blue Pony Stadium, should be another thriller.
Northern is home for the second of three straight games at Blue Pony Stadium, and the Lights are coming off their first win of the season, a victory over Western which saw Derek Lear and the MSU-N passing game explode. Lear threw for seven touchdowns and an absurd 532 yards against Western, while receivers Brandon O’Brien and Kyle Johnston combined for 371 yards and five TD’s.
“It was nice to see our offense start to click,” Northern head coach Mark Samson said. “We really didn’t change much, we just played a lot better and the kids executed a lot better. And we’re not going to really change anything this week.
“Rocky is a very good football team,” Samson added. “They (Bears) have had a game this year where their quarterback put up huge numbers, and then they have also struggled to score at times, just like we have. And just like us, their defense has been pretty darn consistent all season. So this week is just like any other in the Frontier, it’s not going to be easy. Rocky is going to come in here and we expect them to play very well.”
Samson’s assessment of the Bears is right on the money. RMC started the season off like gangbusters, going 3-0, including a win over Southern Oregon in which sophomore QB Bryce Baker (6-3, 205) threw for 544 yards and the Bears’ offense amassed 700 total yards. By the third week of the season, the Bears had climbed all the way to No. 19 in the NAIA Coaches Poll.
But then there’s been the last two weeks, where the Bears have barely registered on offense. First came a 19-6 road loss at Carroll College where Rocky made just two field goals. Then came a 24-6 home loss to Montana Tech in which the Bears scored one TD but Baker threw two interceptions that were returned for scores.
Now Rocky comes to Havre reeling, and the Bears don’t have a recent success story to dwell on on the Hi-Line either. Last November, Northern shelled the Bears in a Friday night contest, and MSU-N is the team which started Rocky’s downfall in 2011 in Billings too.
But none of what happened between the Lights and Bears last season, or anything that has happened to the Bears the last two weeks really matters, and Samson knows it.
“They (Bears) have some scary players on offense,” Samson said. “Their quarterback is a good player who has really grown into the position. He’s a lot like Derek (Lear) in that he can make a lot of plays with his feet, but he can also stand in the pocket and deliver the ball. They have some receivers who they move all over the field and their good targets for the quarterback to throw too, and their offense line is pretty big. They are going to throw the ball a lot so we have to be ready for that. Defensively, we have to do a much better job of maintaining our composure in the secondary and not get beat with the big play.”
And Rocky will want to use the big play to beat the Lights, whether it comes on a short screen pass, a deep route or Baker taking off and running. Baker is second on the team in rushing behind running back Ben Ray, but where the Bears have weapons is on the perimeter. Sophomore receiver Andre McCullogh (6-1, 270) is second in the Frontier in catches per game and is averaging 65 yards per outing. Ryan Toner (6-3, 195) is a big target on the outside and together they lead a Bears’ receiving group of three starting sophomores and one freshman. Matt Concienne is the lone senior who sees significant playing time and he too can make big plays in the Bears’ passing game.
And just like anytime Rocky and Northern hook up, the MSU-N secondary will be under fire.
Last week, Western was able to make some big plays on the MSU-N secondary, but the Lights are still yielding just 213 passing yards per game which is third-best in the conference. And the Lights do have a solid group in the secondary, led by senior Matt Reyant, who has 36 tackles this season, as well as corner Tanner Varner. Freshman corner Trevor Baum is also seeing a lot of playing time in the secondary and has been making some solid plays as well. But the Lights’ secondary will need help too and Northern’s linebackers are part of the equation with RMC’s short and quick-hit passing game. James Chandless has
led the team in tackles since moving to middle linebacker, while Jordan Van Voast and David Arteaga are also in the Top 10 in the league in tackles.
“Our defense has played well,” Samson said. “I think we’ve done a lot of good things there this season. But again, I’d really like to see us get some turnovers. We just haven’t created enough of those this season, and we need too.”
If Northern’s defense has its hands full Saturday, so does Rocky’s.
The Lights went crazy last week to the tune of over 600 yards of offense, and they are hoping with the likes of O’Brien and Johnston healthy, with a healthy offensive line and a full compliment of weapons for Lear, including running backs Stephen Silva and Justin Montelius, that Saturday was only the beginning.
But Rocky comes to Havre with a formidable defense, led by nose tackle Jake Scharbrough (6-1, 280), defensive end Doug Karmowski (6-4, 250), who leads the Frontier with 4.5 sacks, linebackers Travis Bertelsen (5-10, 210) and Josh Johnson (6-3, 260), who have combined for 88 tackles, as well as all-conference defensive backs Eric Buer (5-9, 180) and Ridge Fuentes (5-11, 190). Buer has a league-high two picks this season. The Bears are allowing just 195 yards passing per game, and though they lost their last two, they held both the Carroll and Tech offenses in check.
“They (Bears) have a really solid defense,” Samson said. “They don’t do anything really fancy, they just get after you. They are big and physical up front, they have some good size at linebacker and their secondary is very experienced. They have a couple of really good and fast kids back there. So there’s no question their defense is very good and they’ve played very well as a unit this season.
“But I feel like we got over a hump last week, and hopefully we can keep executing on offense,” he added. “We’re as close to full strength on offense as we’re going to be and we played like it last week. Hopefully we can go out there and continue to play well, because against a tough defense like they (Bears) have, and an offense that can score, we’re going to have to put some points on the board again this week. There’s no way around that.”
And putting points on the board is exactly what the Lights did last weekend when they finally broke out and got their first win of the season. And they need to do it again, because Northern knows the season is not lost and it’s a long way from over.
But they also understand that a good and hungry Rocky team, which has lost two straight is coming to town to try and spoil the homecoming party. So the Lights will certainly have to play at a high level in all phases in order to beat the Bears and win their second straight game.
“It felt to get that monkey off our backs and get the win last weekend, but we have another big game coming up this weekend,” MSU-N senior guard Brock Hyder said. “And we have to keep winning. We are do or die at this point.”
Saturday’s MSU-N homecoming game between the Lights and the Battlin’ Bears kicks off at 1 p.m. at Blue Pony Stadium. Northern and Rocky are both idle next week.
MSU-Northern Lights (1-3, 1-3) vs Rocky Mountain College Battlin Bears (2-2, 3-2)
Saturday at 1 p.m.
at Blue Pony Stadium
Radio: 92.5 KPQX FM
Internet: www.havredailynews.com or www.msun.edu/athletics
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