There is no way to quantify just how much Saturday night's 32-21, last-second loss to the Montana Tech Orediggers at Blue Pony Stadium hurts, but, lost in the bitter defeat was a bunch of young Northern stars shining brightly in the chilly night air.
There's no question, Northern has a strong group of senior talent, but three youngsters and a quarterback showed Saturday night that the Lights will be just fine offensively moving forward.
Red-shirt freshmen wide receivers Jake Messerly and Dylan Woodhall are certainly coming of age this season, and both were on display Saturday night. Messerly has the rare combination of speed and size, and at a glance, he looks like he could certainly play at the FCS level or above. And his highlight reel catches Saturday night, combined with Woodhall's shifty catch and runs certainly give the Lights a great WR combo moving forward. Together, the duo, Messerly from Missoula, and Woodhall from Stanford, caught three passes for 169 yards against the Tech defense.
Meanwhile, the guy throwing to them isn't young by grade, but Travis Dean hasn't exactly seen a lot of game action over the years. Dean made his second start of the season Saturday night, and just his third of his Northern career. And he showed why he'll be more than capable of guiding the MSU-N offense in 2014, in what will be his final year of football. Hampered by multiple injuries over the years, Dean has come back strong and healthy in 2014, and on Saturday night, he tossed his first 300-yard game of his Northern career. Dean attempted 35 passes and threw just one interception in what was a solid outing in which he helped lead the Lights to 31 points.
Then there's running back Zach McKinley, who got off to a strong start this fall, but had been bottled up lately. However, the Tech defense didn't have an answer for the former CMR prep star out of Great Falls. McKinley went well over 100 yards on Saturday night, scoring two touchdowns and breaking off six runs of 10 yards or longer.
So, though Saturday night's game was a bitter pill for the Lights to swallow, MSU-N fans got a bright glimpse into the future of Northern's offense. With wideouts like Messerly and Woodhall, and running backs like McKinley and Mario Gobatto, the skill positions at MSU-N are certainly stacked for years to come.
Rare Night Loss
It hasn't happened to the Lights too often, but Montana Tech handed MSU-N a rare defeat under the lights of Blue Pony Stadium on Saturday night.
Coming into the contest, which was moved to a 6:30 p.m. start because of Havre High's playoff game with Miles City the Lights were 5-1 in night games in Havre since 2004.
However, after Herman Tapley's miracle touchdown to Zack Kinney with no time left Saturday night, the Lights have now lost their last two night games at home. Northern dropped a season-opening night game to Carroll College in 2012, and Tech's win adds to that streak.
Northern is also 1-3 in its last four games played at night. The Lights beat Dickinson State in a night game to open the season, but dating back to 2012, Northern lost night games to Carroll, at Rocky Mountain College last November and Saturday's gut-wrenching loss to the Orediggers. Tech had been one of the teams Northern had beaten at night prior to Saturday night. The Lights beat the Orediggers in a 2008 night game at Blue Pony Stadium.
Pride was at Stake
Neither the Lights, nor the Orediggers were going to win a Frontier Conference championship, or make the playoffs, regardless of what unfolded Saturday night in Havre. But both teams sure played like those things were on the line.
Coming into Saturday night's game, the Lights hadn't won since a Sept. 29 victory at UM-Western and Tech had lost five of its last six, with its only victory coming two weeks ago against lowly Dickinson State. And both teams were desperate for a win and it showed.
There were big plays all around on offense. Tapley's two touchdowns in the final two minutes of the game were the stuff of legends, while two great running backs in McKinley and Tech's Pat Hansen seemingly busted off big runs and tackle-breaking scampers all night long.
And the game was hard-hitting and physical. Northern delivered some great blows on defense and on special teams, including a bone-jarring Tyler Craig hit on Tapley late in the contest. Tech was no different, as Northern QB Travis Dean was sacked five times, while Tech defensive backs were eager to lay hits on Northern wide receivers all night long.
Yes, Saturday night's meant little in the way of the Frontier standings, but it was clear from the start, the game meant plenty to both the Lights and Orediggers. Thanks to the pride showed by both teams Saturday night, the most recent college football game at night in Havre had the feel of an NAIA playoff game, rather than two teams just trying to end the season.