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Lights in search of first win

 


One thing is for certain on Saturday, somebody will leave with a win and somebody will still remain winless.

A pair of teams desperate to grab that elusive first win of the season will square off at Blue Pony Stadium as the 0-2 Montana State University-Northern Lights host the 0-3 UM-Western Bulldogs in Frontier Conference football action.

Western might be the best 0-3 team in NAIA. The Bulldogs were tabbed to challenge Carroll College for this year's Frontier Conference title. With an excess of experience and returning starters from last year's Frontier Conference championship team, many people felt the Bulldogs would give Carroll, the defending NAIA national champs, all they could handle this season.

However, a brutal non-conference schedule with losses to NCAA Division I-AA Idaho State and a tough loss to Eastern Oregon along with a 38-10 loss to Carroll last weekend leaves the Bulldogs winless and very hungry for a victory.

In last week's loss, Western was held to its lowest offensive output of the season. Carroll held the Bulldogs to just 206 yards in total offense including a measly 141 passing yards. This from the same offense that averaged close to 300 yards passing per game last season. Western also committed four very costly turnovers, two of which led directly to Carroll scores.

Northern is also in search of its first week of the season. The Lights were on the receiving end of a 57-3 beating last week at the hands of the Rocky Mountain College Battlin' Bears.

But the Lights have more things hurting than their pride. Northern, already battered and bruised physically, added a few more players to the talented group watching the game in street clothes.

Northern lost three linebackers, who shared the majority of snaps this season. Senior linebacker Larry Klingaman is out indefinitely with multiple injuries. Klingaman is the most experienced member of the Lights' linebacking corps. He has scored one of Northern's two touchdowns on the season on a fumble recovery against Dickinson State.

Also out is starting outside linebacker David Knight. The actual injury or extent can't be released, but defensive coordinator Mickey Williams said that Knight will miss his second consecutive game because of it.

Joining Knight is junior linebacker Steve Beaty, who is also ailing and won't suit up on Saturday.

The trio joins starting outside linebacker Brendan Scott, cornerback Bill McGuire, defensive lineman Matt Sasaki and a few others who will not play.

The question, it seems, for Williams isn't what defense he is going to play, but more like who will play it. Actually, the personnel will dictate his defensive scheme against the pass-happy Bulldogs.

"We are going from young to no game experience whatsoever," Williams said. "We have had to simplify our defense scheme because of the inexperience."

Williams will start true freshman Mike Tryon at middle linebacker while running back Ryan Utterback has moved over to defense and will start at Knight's outside backer position.

"Right now, we're just trying to get the quickest kids we can on the field," Williams said. "We've been forced to do it this way because we've lost so many people."

One thing that will help is that Northern will see a somewhat similar offense to last week against Rocky. Western will throw the ball just as often if not more than the Bears.

However, the similarities stop there.

Unlike Rocky, which picked Northern apart with 5-and 8-yard passes, Western likes to go deeper, looking for the big play.

"Their quarterback doesn't get rid of the ball as quickly as the guy from Rocky," Williams said. "Rocky would sit in shotgun and throw the ball within two seconds after it was snapped. Western's quarterback likes to sit back in the pocket and wait on the longer pass plays."

Western's quarterback, Travis Kirby, is no stranger to the Frontier Conference. While it just seems like he's been playing for 10 years, Kirby is a three-year starter, who can take over games.

He threw for 632 yards and seven touchdowns in two games against Northern last season and has gaggle of targets to throw to.

"He's a pretty cool customer," Williams said. "He isn't is quite as big as or takes off running like Adam Sanchez (Rocky's QB). Kirby will stay in the pocket longer, but he'll run when he has to. He's quick enough to get away and make big throws."

Kirby doesn't have a shortage of targets. His wide receiving unit was hurt by the graduation of all-conference performers Jeff Bowman and Brandon DeLeon. But it still returns first-team all-conference receiver Jake Larson along with all-conference performer Dallas Mock. They're joined by Cory Creighton, Josh Illig, Marvin Mabry and former Light player T Artis.

Larson snagged 41 balls for 759 yards and five touchdowns, playing in just six games due to injury. Mock is a big target at 6-1, 215 pounds and causes matchup problems. Kirby also likes to throw to his foursome of running backs - Scott Glessner, Josh Shrum, Caleb Drinkwalter and Fernando Fantroy.

"We have to find a way to get some pressure on Kirby," Williams said. "They have a huge offensive line, so it will be tough."

One factor that will directly effect the Lights having success on defense will be the Lights' offense.

Northern's offense must get time -consuming drives, but also punctuate them with scores.

"We're moving the ball fine," said head coach Walt Currie. "We need some consistency and we need to get the ball in the endzone."

As it has been in the past few years, turnovers have become a malady that the Lights can't quite cure. Northern committed five costly turnovers against Rocky which led to three scores and killed offensive drives and rhythm.

"We seem to commit them in the worst possible spot and put our defense in some tough situations," Currie said. "They're correctable mistakes and the kids have been working on them all week."

To say Currie has emphasized protecting the ball would be a bit of an understatement. He has preached, pestered and proselytized his team about it all week.

But more importantly, Currie is hoping his team will play with pride after last week's loss.

"Things go wrong in football," Currie said. "We have to keep our mind on what we want to do when something goes wrong. You can't press because and try to do more, or it will lead to even more things going wrong."

His team has been upbeat, even with weather conditions that have been far from conducive for practicing.

"They have to be resilient," Currie said. "With a young team, there are going to be tough times. They aren't down and have been intent on getting better."

 

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