Block party boosts Lights
In college football, special teams always plays a key role in the outcome of games. But in many cases, it's the timing of those special team's plays which really matters.
And on Saturday afternoon at Blue Pony Stadium, in MSU-Northern's 24-17 season-opening win over the UM-Western Bulldogs, a fourth-quarter special team's play literally turned out to be the difference in the final margin.
Northern's defense pinned Western deep in its own territory, and with Northern ahead 17-3, it appeared a blowout was imminent. And it got even worse for the Bulldogs because punter Deryk Van Zee's punt never left his foot. Instead, Northern sophomore defensive end Ryan Craig came through and got a big paw on the ball, sending it spiraling backwards and into Western's endzone. Craig was quick to the ball and he picked it up for a score which put the Lights ahead 24-3 early in the fourth quarter.
However, the game was far from over, and while A.J. Pasalo's interception in the final minute prevented the Bulldogs from sending it into overtime, it was Craig's block and subsequent recovery in the endzone which provided Northern with the final seven points it needed.
"Special teams is huge, just like offense and defense are," Craig, a 6-0, 230-pound sophomore from Richland, Wash., said. "That play right there (blocked punt for a touchdown) was just a lot of hard work and being dedicated to what you need to do. It felt great, but it was a team effort. If we are going to be successful we have to successful on offense, defense and special teams."
And the Lights were big on special teams, thanks to Craig and a big block which turned out to be an exciting and unusual game-winning score.
Plenty of air time
In past games between Northern and Western, it was usually the pass-happy Bulldogs who were trying to see how many yards they could put up through the air. And not because Northern's past defenses were bad, quite the contrary, but more so because the Bulldogs usually tossed the ball around 50 times per game.
In Northern's exciting win on Saturday, it was just the opposite.
Sophomore quarterback Derek Lear completed 20 passes on 39 attempts for 342 yards and one touchdown. Lear connected with six different receivers, including Orin Johnson for 39 yards on five catches, Brian Torgerson for 30 yards on two grabs and even running back Stephen Silva, who hauled in two balls for 39 yards. But perhaps more important was the fact that Lear didn't throw an interception. In fact, the Lights committed no turnovers in their opener after interceptions were something they struggled with a year ago. And on top of it all, MSU-N shut down Western's passing attack to the tune of just 196 yards.
"I was really pleased with the fact that we didn't turn the ball over," Northern head coach Mark Samson said. "I would have liked our defense to come up with a few more, and we had our chances, but the fact that we didn't have any turnovers was nice to see. In this league, you can't make those kinds of mistakes and be successful. And we were pretty good in that department today.
"Derek did some good things, he especially got going early," he added. "I thought he made some good reads, some good decisions with the football and we were able to build a little bit of a lead as a result."
Western's offense will have to wait another week to try and get new head coach Ryan Nourse his first win as a head coach. And a big reason why was MSU-N's secondary.
The Lights are young and only two of the four starters in the defensive backfield have started games in the Frontier Conference. However, MSU-N shut down the Frontier's leading receiver from a year ago, Colton Woods. Woods didn't have a single catch on the day, while Northern corner Chris Hamilton had eight tackles, a pass defended and one near INT. Sophomore Tanner Varner was also stellar with six tackles and a pass breakup, while Matt Reyant added six tackles as well.
Crushed from beginning to end
Pasalo's interception at the end of the game stopped any chance Western had of completing a comeback. But it wasn't the only crushing blow he delivered on the day.
In the first quarter, Pasalo put a hit on Western receiver Casey Lamping that he won't soon forget. Lamping reached up to make a catch that would have resulted in a first down early on for the Bulldogs, but instead, Pasalo charged in, lowered his shoulder into Lamping's back and the ball was dropped. And from there, Western didn't record its first first down until well into the second stanza.
"It was important for us to come out and be physical," Pasalo said. "I thought both defenses were really physical and played really hard. But we needed to come out and establish ourselves on defense. We made some mistakes, we have things to work on, but I thought everybody played hard and play physical and that was important for us to be able to do that."