By Ryan Divish
It's a pretty simple request really. Hang onto the ball, protect it, love it, cherish it and above all else don't turn it over.
But Montana State-Northern head football coach Walt Currie is past the point of requesting. He's demanding it. After fighting turnovers in the past two seasons and last week's six turnover performance in a 35-14 loss to Dickinson State, Currie has seen enough.
The Lights open the Frontier Conference season on Saturday when they travel to Billings to take on the Rocky Mountain College Battlin' Bears. And Currie's offensive game plan going in is very simple and to the point - don't turn the ball over.
"We can't allow that to happen," Currie said.
In last weekend's season opener, MSU-Northern had four fumbles and two interceptions and a plethora of other mistakes that need to be cleaned up. The mistakes occurred on both sides of the ball and it was something that surprised Currie and defensive coordinator Mickey Williams, regardless of it being the first game of the season.
"They're all seniors," Williams said. "It's not like this is their first game. They've probably been starting since they were sophomores. "
Rocky has had their own problems this season. The Battlin' Bears are 0-2 on the season with both losses being important conference games. In fact, Rocky starts off the season with four consecutive conference games. Despite the 0-2 start Rocky head coach Clay Moose said his team isn't down on itself.
"Our guys are playing hard," Moose said. "Our attitude has been really positive and upbeat."
Like Northern, Rocky made its fair share of mistakes in their two losses. They also had some crucial turnovers and gave up some big plays while struggling to score in the red zone in both their losses.
"We need to go from being a team that executes for two or three quarters to a team that executes for four quarters," Moose said.
Regardless of Rocky's past execution, Williams and his Lights' defensive unit will be busy on Saturday. Rocky's "Fun-n-Gun" offense has already amassed almost 800 yards of total offense this season.
Battlin' Bears quarterback Benton Johnson has thrown for 633 yards on the season. In two games, Johnson has attempted a 125 passes, completing 66. Johnson, who returned to the football field after a three year hiatus, is still shaking off the rust but Moose has been happy with his progress.
"He's making good progress," Moose said. "We're certainly pleased with that. To say he's where he wants to be would be inaccurate.
Rocky will use four and five receivers on most formations and run short quick patterns while Johnson will throw quickly from the shotgun or a three drop step.
Williams fully expects Johnson to attempt at least 60 passes in Saturday's contest. To defense that the Lights will use two different schemes either a maximum coverage or a maximum pressure scheme.
The maximum coverage will feature only three or four down lineman rushing the quarterback with seven people dropping into coverage. The maximum pressure scheme will feature some linebacker blitzing along with some stunting on the defensive line.
Both schemes are extreme to an end, but against this offense there is no happy medium.
"You have to do one or the other," Williams said. "You can't do both."
Another key for the Lights will be tackling on the short pass plays to not let Rocky turn them into big pass plays.
"We need to have good pursuit," Williams said. "We're designing the defense on that they are going to throw short, we just have to execute it."
Not giving up big plays is also something that Moose said Rocky's defense is keying on.
"Last year they hurt us with big plays," Moose said. "We need to stop that long pass."
Northern defeated Rocky last year in Havre, 31-28 in overtime. In that game, Lights' wide receiver Andy Smith had eight catches for 147 yards and three touchdowns - two of them covering 25 and 37 yards. Smith is gone from the Lights and Moose isn't shedding any tears over it.
"Andy Smith was as dynamic a player as there was in the conference last year," Moose said. "He had a knack for making big plays unfortunately a lot of those came against us."
Currie is waiting for a playmaker to emerge this year and he saw some potential in the first game. Receiver Tanner Woodward and running back Bill Templer had solid games last week along with quarterback Brandon Kerkes.
The Lights could possibly see the return of starting tailback Travis Crawford for the game. Crawford, who had a hairline fracture in his leg, has been cleared by doctors to play. Northern will be without the services of starting inside linebacker Mark Nay who injured his angle last week against DSU. Nay could be out for the season and is applying for a medical hardship redshirt.
Saturday's kickoff is scheduled at 1 p.m. at Herb Klindt Field in Billings and can be heard on 92.5 KPQX FM.