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Northern beats Arizona Christian in exciting season-opener in Phoenix


September 3, 2019

In the first game Andrew Rolin ever coached, his Montana State University-Northern Lights provided him with a memorable win over Mayville State inside Blue Pony Stadium.

Fast forward one year, and the Lights were looking for history to repeat itself, only this time, they were playing a much tougher team in the form of the Arizona Christian Firestorm, and they were playing a long, long way from home.

Saturday night, Northern traveled to the desert to face ACU in the season-opener for both NAIA squads and, once again, the Lights found some August magic. Northern started fast, led 17-0 at halftime and wound up leaving Phoenix with an impressive 20-14 win over the Firestorm, who went 8-3 just a season ago.

"I'm really proud of our guys," Rolin said. "We beat a really good football team Saturday night. That's a team that almost made the playoffs last year. They're well-coached, they're an established program. So it's a credit to our guys for going down there focused, and executing in all three phases at a really high level."

Northern did execute at a high level, especially in the first quarter, where the Lights jumped out to a 14-0 lead.

The first strike came from sophomore Keagan Stroop, who took an end-around 26 yards, giving the Lights a 7-0 lead. Northern would also close the first 15 minutes with a six-play, 62-yard drive that ended in red-shirt freshman Brendan Medina's first collegiate touchdown pass, as he hooked up with veteran Bryce Bumgardner for a nine-yard score to make it 14-0. In an impressive and dominant first half, the Lights would tack on a Troy Dayak 27-yard field goal to take a communing 17-0 lead into the break.

"We jumped on them early, and that was exciting," Rolin said. "We started fast on offense. We were executing really well there. And we shut them (Firestorm) out. Defensively, we just played a great first half of football."

Rolin added that, no matter how well the Lights were playing, they also knew Arizona Christian wouldn't go quietly into the hot desert night, and the Firestorm didn't. They scored twice in an eight-minute stretch in the third quarter to trim the Lights' lead to 17-14 with 15 minutes left in the game.

From there, however, Northern's defense was stifling, not allowing the Firestorm much of anything, while Dayak booted a 44-yard field goal that would prove to be all the insurance the Lights needed to secure a second straight season-opening victory.

"I think one of the big differences Saturday night was how we responded to adversity," Rolin said. "The character of this team really showed in the fourth quarter. We knew we were playing a good football team, and when they came back on us, our guys really buckled down. They stayed poised and they executed. That was a big difference from where we were last season."

Dayak and many others were a big difference, too. The sophomore kicker was 2-for-2 on field goals and perfect on PATs.

"Special teams was a huge emphasis for us," Rolin said. "Troy played really well. He kicked a 40-plus field goal when the game was on the line. But we were really good in special teams all night. We almost busted a kickoff return; we covered really well. Those guys all did a great job."

Another difference-maker Saturday night?

"Defense," Rolin said. "Our defense played so well. That was another rouge emphasis in the offseason. We tackled better. We played fast and physical for four quarters. We held them (Firestorm) to 25 yards rushing. We stopped a potentially really explosive offense for the most part, every time we needed to. I can't say enough about how excited I am about our defense. That's the defense I want to have in this program."

No question, the Northern defense was literally night and day from a year ago when the Lights finished last in every defensive category in the Frontier Conference. They limited ACU to just 15 first downs, 321 yards of offense, they created a turnover, and most importantly, the Lights held a team to under 20 points for the first time in over three years.

Cornerback Josh Rose had a big game for the Lights with six tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble, to go with two pass breakups. Japerri Powell, Hunter Riley, Jake Norby and B.J. Hatcher each had five tackles, while Hatcher had two TFLs.

Of course, the Lights were also really good offensively Saturday night, led by Medina, who was making his first career start. He threw for 247 yards, completed better than 60 percent of his passes, while also rushing for 23 yards on seven carries.

"I thought Brendan played outstanding," Rolin said. "He did a lot of things right. He made the right reads, he threw for a high percentage and he showed us what he can do with his feet. He played like a veteran QB, and he was a leader out there. I'm really proud of how he played."

Medina got plenty of help, too. Seven Lights caught passes, led by Bumgardner with seven grabs for 67 yards, and Damari Davis, who also had seven catches for 62 yards. Josh Horner added three catches for 40 yards, while Marvin Williams had 35 yards and Stroop added 33. On the ground, Jett Robertson had 69 yards on 14 carries, while Andrez Trahan-Proctor tallied 31 yards on 12 totes.

"I was very pleased with our offense," Rolin said. "There are things to clean up, but overall, they got off to a fast start, and they executed really well against a very good football team."

And that's the point. The Lights went to Phoenix to play a very good non-conference opponent, a team that would certainly help them prepare for life in the Frontier Conference. They accomplished that mission, and did one better by coming home with a win.

"We're excited," Rolin said. "This is a big win for our program, and a big step forward for this team. We know we went down there and beat a very good, very well-coached football team, so that says a lot about our guys and where we are going. I'm just really proud of them."

The Lights (1-0, 0-0) will have little time to celebrate however. They open Frontier play this Saturday at defending champion Rocky Mountain College (1-0, 0-0). The Battlin' Bears opened their season with a three-point win over Dickinson State last Thursday night. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. Saturday in Billings.

Lights 20, Arizona Christian 14

MSU-Northern 14 3 0 3 20

ACU 0 0 14 0 - 14

1st Quarter

MSU-N - Keagan Stroop 26 run (Troy Dayak kick)

MSU-N - Bryce Bumgardner 9 pass from Brendan Medina (Dayak kick)

2nd Quarter

MSU-N - Dayak 27 FG

3rd Quarter

ACU - Jon Cole 14 pass from Emilio Ariza (Higuera kick)

ACU - Cole 54 pass from Ariza (Higuera kick)

4th Quarter

MSU-N - Dayak 44 FG


RUSHING - MSU-N, Jett Robertson 14-69, Andrez Trahan-Proctor 12-31, Keagan Stroop 3-30, Hunter Riley 1-16, Brendan Medina 7-23, Cameron Taylor 2-0, Jake Horner 1-0; ACU, Aidan Quinn 13-24, Emilio Ariza 3-11, Greg Tremble 3-6, Zay Reeves 1-2.

PASSING - MSU-N, Brendan Medina 23-38-247-1-1; ACU, Emilio Ariza 15-34-282-2-0, Maverick Gomez 1-6-14-0-1.

RECEIVING - MSU-N, Bryce Bumgardner 7-67, Damari Davis 7-62, Jake Horner 3-40, Marvin Williams 2-35, Keagan Stroop 2-33, Jett Robertson 1-6, Jared Eisenbarth 1-4; ACU, Jon Cole 4-110, Alias Sturges 2-64, Aidan Quinn 4-53, Balley Erich 2-38, Jason Kia 3-16, Greg Tremble 1-15.

TACKLES - MSU-N, Josh Rose 6, Japerri Powell 5, Hunter Riley 5, Jake Norby 5, Jaren Maki 5; ACU, Jacob Hernandez 11, Davonte Gallon 8, Joel Zurita 8.


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