By Ryan Divish
Brandon Kerkes has thrown plenty of touchdown passes in his college career, and he'll throw plenty more. But none will compare with his final pass on Saturday.
Kerkes found Kris Marshall on an out pattern and connected for an 11-yard touchdown pass with 12 seconds remaining to give the Montana State-Northern Lights an 18-13 victory over the Montana Tech Orediggers at a gusty Blue Pony Stadium.
The win gave the Lights their first win of the season and their first win against Montana Tech since reinstating the football program four years ago.
"We haven't beaten Tech since I've been here," said Lights head coach Walt Currie. "It means a lot because we beat a legitimate contender in the Frontier Conference. That means our program has grown to where we can play with those teams."
Said Kerkes: "It brings our team together. We've had so many close games. It's our biggest win so far."
The win didn't come easily. Trailing 13-12 with less than four minutes remaining, the Lights found themselves pinned deep in their own territory. Starting on their own 13-yard line, Kerkes engineered a 15-play, 87-yard scoring drive that culminated with Marshall's juggling catch in the end zone.
In that drive, Kerkes completed seven of nine passes for 44 yards while picking up a pair of key first downs on quarterback draws.
"He showed tremendous poise on that drive," Currie said of Kerkes. "He showed tremendous poise the whole game. He made good choices and didn't turn the ball over."
Kerkes finished the game 23 of 36 for 245 yards and threw a pair of touchdown passes the other coming on a 58-yard completion with Scott Ramsey.
But it was his pass to Marshall that sent the Northern sideline and the crowd of about 1,000 into a frenzy. With only 15 seconds remaining in the game and the Lights out of timeouts, Currie knew they had one chance to go for the end zone before trying a field goal.
"We just wanted to not take a sack and hopefully get a receiver open and not turn the ball over, so we could at least go for a field goal," Currie said. "Marshall made a hell of a play."
Kerkes and Marshall did exactly that. After taking a quick drop, Kerkes made the short throw as Marshall fought off man-to-man coverage to make the catch.
"I just tried to keep my poise," Kerkes said. "It was an out and I just tried to make a good throw."
Said Marshall: "I just tried to get in the end zone. The ball was right there. I juggled it a little but I wasn't going to drop that pass."
The late game heroics would have been for naught if it weren't for the solid play of the Lights' defense. But the defense didn't start off that way. On Tech's second offensive possession, Northern appeared to have the Diggers stopped on a third down and 3 play. However, the Lights had lined up offside, giving Tech a first down. Four plays later, Tech's Adam Cotton scored on a 1-yard run for the Diggers' only touchdown.
After that, Northern stymied the Tech offensive attack. Twice the Diggers had the ball first and goal inside the Northern 5-yard line, but managed only a 21-yard Chris Casne field goal in the two possessions.
"Our defense just seems to get tougher, the closer they get to their own end zone," Currie said.
Said Tech head coach Bob Green: "Credit that defense. We got close twice and if we get in the end zone down there it's a different game."
But it wasn't just the two goal line stands. Northern held Tech to 118 yards passing while sacking Digger quarterback Skylar Willard three times and forcing him into an in interception. Tech gained 188 yards on the ground, led by Cotton with 144 yards. But they had to fight for every one of them.
With winds gusting from the west up to 30 mph, teams going into the wind were limited offensively. All of Northern's points came with the wind at their back in the second and fourth quarters.
Trailing 10-0 following Casne's field goal and Cotton's run, the Lights got going with the wind at their back in the second quarter. Kerkes hooked Ramsey early in the second quarter. Ramsey took a short pass, avoided a Digger defender and raced 58 yards down the Northern sideline. The Lights subsequently missed the extra point and trailed 10-6.
On the first play of the ensuing possession, a Cotton fumble was recovered by linebacker Josh Fike on the Tech 19-yard line. A pair of runs by Ryan Utterback and Bill Templer got the Lights to first and goal from the 9-yard line. Templer would score on the next play, when he took a sweep, cut back against the defense and dove into the end zone. Northern went for the two-point conversion but Kerkes' pass to Templer was incomplete. Northern took a 12-10 lead into halftime.
Casne nailed an Oredigger record 50-yard field goal with the wind at his back early in the third quarter. However, his 52-yard field goal attempt late in the third quarter had plenty of distance but bounced off the right goal post.
With the loss, Tech drops to 1-3 on the season and 1-1 in the Frontier Conference.
"It was a bitterly disappointing loss," Green said. "All the credit goes to Coach Currie and the Northern players. They played very, very well. They executed some critical opportunities and made big plays when they needed to."
Northern not only gets its first win of the season, but also some added confidence after a couple of sound losses to begin the season.
"It's a whole new season now," Kerkes said. "It brings us together as a team. "
The win is something that Currie wanted his players to savor especially after a pair of disappointing losses.
"I think it means everything to them," Currie said. "It's a great feeling because they played so hard together as a team."
Northern will return to the field this week to take on the defending Frontier Conference champion Carroll College Fighting Saints on Saturday at Blue Pony Stadium.