Lights look to rally at RMC
If there was ever a more difficult time to try and get an all-important road win, this Saturday would be the time.
The Montana State University-Northern football team has a tall order in front of it when the Lights (3-5, 3-5) travel to Billings Saturday to take on the Rocky Mountain College Battlin' Bears in a Frontier Conference rematch. The Bears (4-4, 4-5) beat the Lights 34-23 back in September in Havre, and now Northern will try and reverse its fortunes.
But the Lights will do so in the wake of a stunning 39-36 loss at home to Eastern Oregon last Saturday, a game MSU-N led 34-7 at halftime.
"It's been a pretty difficult week," MSU-N head coach Mark Samson admitted. "So it's really hard to gauge how we'll play against Rocky at this point. Obviously, we know we're capable of going down there and playing well, but last week's loss was as tough as gets and it's been difficult. So all we can do is go down there and give it our best shot."
And Northern won't just be trying to earn a season split with the Bears, but the Lights are trying to reverse a two-game losing streak to Rocky, as well as erase the bitter memory of a 52-27 loss at RMC a year ago.
While the Lights lost to the Bears earlier this season as well, Northern is a different team, especially on offense. The Lights come into Saturday's game scoring almost 28 points and averaging nearly 400 yards of total offense – the highest offensive numbers an MSU-N team has put up in almost three years.
Individually, freshman quarterback Derek Lear is third in the Frontier in passing and total offense, while Matt Stuart is second in receiving yards per game and first in yards-per-catch. The Lights also got back a healthy Brandon O'Brien last week, and all he did is total 112 yards on three catches with two going for scores.
"We're doing some good things offensively," Samson said. "And I do know this, we're going to have to against Rocky. We're going to have to put some points on the board because their offense is certainly capable of doing that."
And Samson couldn't be more right.
The Lights are stout on defense with defensive end Travis Hjort second in the NAIA in sacks (9.5), while linebacker Landry See leads the conference in tackles. Will Andrews and Jared Weigel are also having big seasons for the Lights and linebacker A.J. Pasalo has been quietly very good week-to-week.
But not matter how good the Lights play, they know the Bears do one thing well, and that's score. Rocky comes into Saturday's game having scored 45 or more points in each of its last three outings, including last Saturday's 48-38 home win over Montana Tech. Since senior QB Kasey Peters returned in week four, the Bears have went from scoring 23 points per game to now averaging 33 points and 439 yards of offense. Peters is back to his old self and has thrown for 19 touchdowns since his return. He threw four TD's in the win in Havre. And receivers Levi Sutton, A.J. Tolbert, Nathan Barnett and Mark Desin combine to average over 250 yards per contest.
"Defensively, they (Bears) are always a challenge," Samson said. "They throw it all over the place and Peters gets the ball out quick and he is very accurate too. They don't hit you deep that often but they have good speed and they turn short passes into big gains.
"At times in that first game, we felt like we defended them pretty well and hopefully we'll be able to again," he added. "But you don't usually shut down an offense like that, so we have to be able to go in there and put some points on the board ourselves."
And the Lights should be able to.
Against EOU, Northern seemed to be able to pass the ball at will, and Rocky's pass defense ranks just about the Mounties. Northern will also look to establish the run with Stephen Silva and Justin Montelius, who combine to average almost 100 yards per game, but have been slowed down as of late.
But as in many of MSU-N's key games this season, turnovers will be the most critical factor. The Lights are second in the Frontier in takeaways, but lead the league in turnovers, so their margin is skewed some. But if the Lights can put last Saturday's game behind them and take care of the ball, especially in the second half, a win in Billings is more than attainable.
"We feel like we have a great chance to go down there and get a win," Samson said. "I still believe we are playing much better football right now than we were the last time we played them, despite what happened against Eastern Oregon.
"But we also know we have to play well," he added. "We can't go down there not ready to play, because Rocky is also playing pretty good football right now. Hopefully, we'll go down there and give it our very best and if we do that, everything else will take care of itself."
Northern and Rocky will kick off at 12 p.m. Saturday at Herb Klindt Field in Billings. The Lights wrap up the regular season next Saturday at Carroll College.