By Ryan Divish
The little things are killing the Montana State-Northern football team. It seems odd to think that it's just little things that have been responsible for the Lights 0-2 start in which they've been outscored 80-20 in those losses. However, the difference between third down and two and third down and 10 is a lifetime.
Northern will look to clean up those little things and pick up that elusive first win of the season when they host the Montana Tech Orediggers, Saturday at Blue Pony Stadium.
"We've got to clean up the little things," said Lights head coach Walt Currie. "If you drop a pass, line up offsides or miss an assignment, those things hurt. They hurt more than you realize. We need to have better execution."
Northern is coming off a 45-6 pasting at the hands Rocky Mountain College. In that game, Northern grabbed an early 6-0 lead, but broke down offensively and never seemed to get back into any type of rhythm.
The lack of rhythm is due to several factors. Injuries to starting tailback Travis Crawford and wide receiver Tanner Woodward have forced two of Northern's best playmakers to the sidelines. Forcing players, especially in the backfield, to play out of position.
"Hopefully, we're starting to gel with our running backs," Currie said. "When Crawford got hurt that really messed up the whole mix of things. We had to move people from different spots and it hurt us."
Currie hopes to have Crawford back for Saturday. The senior tailback suffered a hairline fracture in his leg during two-a-days, but has been practicing this week.
The same could not be said for Woodward. The junior wide receiver and the Lights biggest deep threat is doubtful for the game. Woodward has a stress fracture in his foot and hasn't practiced all week. Despite being in a soft boot all week, Woodward said there's still a chance he could play this weekend and it will be a game time situation.
Regardless of who's out there, Currie's main goal is to limit some of the mistakes that have killed many of Northern's drive this season.
"It doesn't have to be a 30-yard gain on every play," Currie said. "It doesn't have to even be a 10-yard gain. Even a 2-yard gain gives you the chance to keep the sticks moving. But, every time you break down from a mistake like a penalty or missed assignment, it puts you in a longer situation which makes it that much harder to keep them moving."
Tech has had it's own problems as of late. The Diggers, in the midst of a three game road trip, have lost two in a row including a 35-14 loss to Whitworth College last weekend.
"We think we could have played better," said Tech head coach Bob Green. "But Whitworth is a good team. They are undefeated. We'd like to be 3-0, but time marches on. We expect an outstanding game with Northern. They've had their share of bad breaks this season."
If last year is an indicator, Saturday's contest should be a hard-hitting, smashmouth war. Northern and Tech are by far the two most physical teams in the conference and last year in Havre it showed. Tech blocked a last second field goal to defeat Northern, 17-14 in a game yards and points were both hard fought for and hard to come by.
"We pride ourselves on our physical style of play," Green said.
Green has coached Tech for the past 17 years, he isn't going to change his style this year. They are going to strive for a good blend between running and passing with solid special teams and defense.
"They don't do whole lot of different things," Currie said. "But what they do, they do well."
Tech is led offensively by quarterback Skylar Willard (6-2, 200) and wide receiver Renzy Kelly. Willard is efficient and tough to bring down while Kelly, a speedster from Butte Central, earned all-conference honors last season. Tailback Justin Johnson has replaced Tech all-everything back Jay LeProwse in the backfield and leads the Diggers in rushing.
After playing Rocky's fastbreak, basketball on grass attack, Currie is happy to play a team with a little more offensive balance.
"We're playing a team that we're more geared to play," Currie said. "We have a good defensive line and this week will get to use all four of them at once."
In last week's, Whitworth was able to disrupt the Diggers balance by taking an early lead and slowing down Tech's running attack forcing them to pass much more than they were comfortable with.
Defensively, Tech is led by linebackers Scott Mansanti and Jacob Streitz. Their secondary, a question mark early in the season, has played solid led by free safety Todd Schlaebitz.
Perhaps, Tech's biggest strength is in it's special teams led by kicker Chris Casne and punter Ryan Dunn. Casne has been a three year all-conference performer while Dunn has had three stellar games this season.
Offensively, Northern will use two quarterbacks on Saturday. Senior Brandon Kerkes will start, however freshman back-up Mitch Wilkins will see some playing time. It's a trend that has grown in college football in an effort to get back-ups much needed experience and the frequency of starting quarterback injuries.
"We made a commitment to play Wilkins by not redshirting him," Currie said. "There is nothing like game experience. Mitch found out last week that things happen a little faster than in high school."
Much of Northern's offensive success will hinge on its personnel. If Crawford and Woodward can go, it will give the Lights its top two playmakers back. If not, Northern will look to Bill Templer to continue his solid play at tailback, while freshman Clint Herrera will have to pick up some of Woodward's production.
Currie knows the possibility of starting 0-3 on the season is very real. It's something that he doesn't have to remind to his players.
"Their disappointed with themselves," Currie said. "They want to make a better showing. I think they will, their backs are against the wall. I think they'll rebound and play like it's their last football game."
Kick off is scheduled for 1 p.m. at Blue Pony Stadium.