Lights out to rain on Eastern Oregon's parade
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George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor [email protected]
The Montana State University- Northern football team needs a victory. And the Lights would love nothing more than to send their seniors out on a high note. But when Northern welcomes in No. 23 Eastern Oregon University Saturday at 12 p.m. inside Blue Pony Stadium, the Lights aren't the only team needing a win. While MSU-N (2-7, 2-6) is seeking to put an end to a difficult and frustrating six-game losing streak, the visiting Mountaineers will be trying to keep their fading NAIA playoff hopes alive with a first-ever victory at Blue Pony Stadium. The Mounties' playoff hopes took a serious hit when they lost to Montana Tech 28-24 last week at home, and now EOU (6-3, 6-2) is needing to win its last two games to even have a chance at a playoff berth. Meanwhile, the Lights come into Saturday's game fresh off a 24-13 loss at UM-Western last week, but they have never lost to EOU in Havre under head coach Mark Samson. Northern is hoping that trend continues on Saturday, but it won't be easy. Much has been made of the Lights' defensive injuries this season, and Northern continues to have to rotate in new starters on defense seemingly every week. The Lights have started five different players at defensive end this season, and they have also tried several different safeties. The linebacker position, with Landry See and Justin Montelius has been the most stable, and last week, the Lights got a boost when they got back starting middle linebacker Brandon Grote. Another area of stability has been in the secondary, where freshman Wade Kelly continues to lead the Frontier Conference in tackles, and junior Casey Varner has had an all-conference type season. But while Northern's defense continues to look for answers and depth, they have also played very well in spots, despite the recent losing streak. The Lights have been solid against the run and the pass at times this season, and are third in the conference against the pass something they should see plenty of against EOU. The Mounties have perhaps the best quarterback in all of NAIA football in sophomore Chris Ware. Ware is second in the Frontier and in the nation in both passing and total offense, trailing only Rocky Mountain College quarterback Kasey Peters in both categories. Ware is a dual threat quarterback and is equally dangerous as a passer or runner. For the second straight season, he's the second-leading rusher for EOU from his QB position. But while Ware is the catalyst for one of the most powerful offenses in the nation, EOU is 11th in the NAIA in total offense, he's surrounded with good weapons, including running backs Kevin Sampson and Joel Haran, who have combined for almost 800 yards on the ground this season. Ware has plenty of good receivers to throw to, including senior Jordyn Jackson and slot receiver Kirk Miller. And stopping EOU's attack will be the primary focus for the Lights on Saturday. In their 45-14 loss to the Mounties last month in LaGrande, Ore., Ware threw for 395 yards and scored four touchdowns. Northern will also have to play better on offense if the Lights are to knock off the Mounties in Havre. MSU-N turned the ball over six times at EOU last month, and the Lights struggled to put points on the board last week at Western. However, EOU is fourth in the Frontier in scoring defense (30.1 ppg), despite having the league leader in sacks in Seath Kimbal (7.5), a crew of stout linebackers and a shutdown corner in Rodell Razor. The Mounties are also last in total defense, giving up over 460 yards per game to its opponents. Northern's offense will try to take advantage of those numbers on Saturday. At Western last week, the Lights racked up plenty of yards with receivers Matt Stuart, Garren Hammons and Chase Young all having solid outings. But the Lights will look to be more balanced in the passing game and running game with quarterback Jeff Van Nest getting the start and Ty Cochrell running the ball. Cochrell is third in the Frontier in rushing at 68.8 yards per game. Cochrell has totaled almost 600 yards on the ground this season, but has been slowed down by opposing defenses as of late. With Northern's big offensive line and a quick, but smaller EOU defensive front, the Lights will look to get the running game going on Saturday. And the battle in the trenches could very well determine the outcome of the game, as well as special teams play and turnovers. Emotion may also play a big part in Saturday's tilt. The Lights are hungry to finish their season on a positive note, and on Senior Day, they'll say goodbye to seniors Van Nest, Luke McKinley, Coda Tchida, Tom Kain, Jordon Smith and Jake Smith before the game. Northern also has a chance to play the role of spoiler on Saturday, as a loss to the Lights would effectively end any chance EOU has of making the playoffs. Saturday's game between the Lights and Mounties will kick off at 12 p.m. at Blue Pony Stadium. Northern finishes the regular season at Montana Tech next week, while EOU returns home to face No. 2 Carroll College in its regular season finale.