Lights ready for their big debut
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George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor [email protected]
Despite barely missing out on the 2008 NAIA playoffs, the Montana State University-Northern football team went out on a high note last season. MSU-N ended its year by thumping rival Montana Tech 35-3 on a chilly November Friday night at Blue Pony Stadium. The win gave the Lights a 7-3 record, a second-place finish in the Frontier Conference and the secondbest season in school history. Now, just nine months later the Lights are hoping to start their 2009 campaign like they finished the last one. And that will come with a win in their season-opening game on Saturday as the No. 18 Lights face off against the University of Calgary at 1:30 p.m. at the Methanex Bowl in Medicine Hat. "This is a big game for us," MSUN sixth-year head coach Mark Samson said. "We are excited to have an 11th game on our schedule this season. I think we have the potential to have a very good football team this year, and we want to get things started right, and that's by playing well against Calgary." The Dinos are a member of the Canada West Conference in the CIS. The league is the highest level of Canadian college football, and Calgary is coming off a banner 2008 season, as it reached the national semifinals for the first time in nearly a decade. And with 18 of 24 starters returning, a host of talented underclassmen and transfers, and playoff experience on their side, the Dinos are poised for big things this year, which prompted them to receive the No. 3 preseason ranking in CIS. "We know they are a big, physical and fast football team," Samson said of the Dinos. "We haven't got to see a lot of them, but it's Canadian football, so we're prepared to see a lot of four and five wide receiver sets. We anticipate that they are going to throw it at us a lot, so this will be a good test for our defense. We'll need to play very well in order to be successful." Calgary will be strong on offense because it returns two of the best rushers in the Canada West, as well as its starting quarterback, a big offensive line and speedy and tall receivers. On defense, the Dinos lost two stars on the front line and in the secondary, but do return all of their linebackers and a pair of standout defensive tackles. "We know they (Dinos) will be a good team, a good first opponent for us," Samson said. "That's why this game is so important. We want to go up there and get a win, but after a long fall camp, guys are ready to get tested as well. To see where we're at as a football team. This is the biggest game on our schedule right now." As a team, the Lights are loaded with returning talent, and they will showcase all of it on Saturday in Medicine Hat. Northern hopes to get plenty of players reps Saturday, as it has established strong depth, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Overall, the Lights return 13 starters from a year ago, including NAIA All-American linebacker Stetson Koffman, the anchor of what will be a revamped MSU-N defense this season. On offense, the Lights will go with their usual spread offense attack, and the key is its group of speedy wide receivers, as well as perhaps its most experienced offensive line ever. Here's an in depth look at the 2009 Lights. Offense MSU-N's offense always starts with the quarterback position, and for the third straight year, the Lights will have a new starter. Senior Jeff Van Nest is the go-to-guy at quarterback and was the 2007 opening day starter for Northern before a broken leg derailed that season. A bigger question mark will be the tailback position as Ty Cochrell moves from fullback this season to take over for 2008 Frontier Conference MVP Justin Moe. Cochrell showed flashes of brilliance last year, and now the starting job is his. But Samson will also plug in Andrew Mosby, Trent Thomas and eventually true freshman Stephen Silva in the backfield, as well as true freshman James Chandless at fullback. All five players are multi-dimensional and will give opposing defense different looks throughout the course of a game. Junior Chase Hillman will be Van Nest's backup. "I really like how we stack up in the backfield," Samson said. "Jeff (Van Nest) had a really good fall camp, and he's a smart football player, and the team has really gravitated to him as our quarterback. And our running game has a lot of potential. Ty Cochrell is our starter, but we're confident putting any one of four other guys in there. And with our offensive line in tact, our run game could be very good." On the line, the Lights have a whole starting side back. Center Jordan Smith and left tackle Jake Smith are back, while starter Tom Kain has moved to right tackle. Russ Penner steps in at right guard this season and Zeb Olson at left tackle. Both players saw signifi- cant time a year ago. MSU-N's line also has solid backups in sophomore Joe Pittman and freshman Brock Hyder. As a group, the Light's line averages 6-2 and 275 pounds. And blocking will be key, not only in MSU-N's run game, but in the passing game as well. Northern returns its entire receiving unit from last season, including senior Coda Tchida, junior Matt Stuart, sophomore Kyle Kercher and junior Garren Hammons. MSU-N can go deep at the receiver position with outstanding backups like Chase Young, BJ Palmer, Shaughn McKeon and true freshman Mick Miller. Tight end is also solid as sophomore Kyle Finneman steps into a starting role for the Lights. Finneman is versatile, strong and fast and will be a dangerous target off the line of scrimmage. "Our offense is very dynamic," Samson said. "We have maybe the most depth and the most team speed we've ever had. We're deep at running back and receiver, and we have a strong line. I think as the season goes on, we have a chance to be a very explosive offensive football team." Defense Defense has been a staple at MSU-N in the last four years. There's a reason why Northern has finished third or better in the Frontier Conference during that stretch, and defense has played a key role. However, there are some concerns heading into the 2009 campaign. The defensive line was set to return a pair of first team all-conference performers this season. But junior Jared Weigel decided to not play for the Lights this year and junior Will Andrews has yet to fully recover from a foot injury he suffered during last season. That leaves the Lights with sophomore Chris Buskirk, a former Havre High standout at one end, and sophomore Christian Lehnert on the other side. Both are talented players but neither have much game experience. The MSU-N front is strong in the middle despite the loss of three-year starter Garrett Glasrud. Tackles Guy Hamm and two-year starter Jeff Mahana anchor the middle of the Northern defense, while backups Steven Toone and Sean Thornton will also see plenty of action. "It's a situation we haven't been in too often," Samson said. "Being so young up front on defense. But these guys are good players, and they are just going to have to play well. They are going to have to learn and grow up in a hurry because the defensive end position is crucial for us. We have to pressure the quarterback to be successful in our league. "I still think we have a chance to have a really good defense and a really strong front seven," he added. "It's just going to take getting a lot of these new guys game experience. Because we do have a lot of talent throughout our defense." MSU-N's linebacking crew will once again be the heart of the defense. Koffman is a three-year starter and is perhaps the best defensive player in the Frontier, while on one side, Landry See earned all-conference accolades as a true freshman. Northern has added transfer Justin Montelius to the starting mix, as well as freshman Brandon Grote from Boise, Idaho. Northern's defense is also in an unfamiliar position in the secondary. Never have the Lights started a season with two new safeties under Samson, but that's the case this year. Jhevon McMillan and former quarterback Seth Wildung are new to starting this season, but McMillan, a notorious hard hitter saw plenty of action last season. At corner, Casey Varner returns this season on one side, while three-year starter Luke McKinley has moved back from linebacker this season. McKinley started at corner for the Lights in every game of the 2007 season. The Lights also have several talented, but unproven backups in the secondary including E'Lester Queen, Tanner Varner, Ethan May and K.C. Barrett. "I like the talent we have on defense," Samson said. "We're more inexperienced there than we have been in year's past, but we can still be a very good defense. One thing is for sure, the guys we have play hard, they are fast and athletic, and they are going to make things happen on the field. I really think we have the potential to have another outstanding defense by the end of the season." Special Teams Like the offense, MSU-N almost returns the bulk of its special teams players from a year ago. Finneman earned all conference as a punter last season, while McKinley and Kercher will share the kicking duties, just as the duo did a year ago. Stuart is also back to return punts after earning all conference honors as a return specialist last season, while MSU-N has experienced snappers, and plenty of speed in the kickoff return game. There is no doubt the Lights have talent up and down their roster, and in the Frontier Conference, depth is crucial. On Saturday against Calgary, the Lights will put their talented and deep roster to the test for the first time. "We're excited for this game," Samson said. "I really like the attitude and makeup of this football team. We really do have good players all over the field. Now we just need some game experience for a lot of theese guys. This is an important first game for us, and I know the guys are ready. They will go up there and play hard because they always do. It's an exciting time for our football team." Saturday's "Battle of the Border" between the Lights and Dinos kicks off at 1:30 p.m. inside the Methanex Bowl in Medicine Hat. The game won't count toward the Dino's overall record, as they open their regular season Sept. 4. The Lights have No. 2 Carroll College in Helena as their second game of the season on Sept. 5.