The Montana State University-Northern football team has suffered back-to-back losses and is about to play its third straight game against a nationally-ranked opponent. Normally, that isn’t a recipe for success.
But, over the last eight years, this one road trip each season is one the Lights just seem to play well on, year-after-year.
On Saturday afternoon, Northern (2-5, 2-5) will invade Butte’s Alumni Coliseum to take on the No. 8 Montana Tech Orediggers (6-1, 6-1) in a Frontier Conference game that could have playoff and Frontier title implications for the Diggers’.
And even though Tech is on a six-game winning streak since losing its season-opener to Eastern Oregon, the Lights have won six of their last eight games in Butte, something only Carroll College has equaled over that same stretch.
“For whatever reason, no matter what kind of season we’re having, we always seem to play well at Tech,” said MSU-N head coach Mark Samson, who returned to the Lights’ sidelines this week after missing last week’s game at Carroll College because of surgery. “It’s nice to be able to say we play at well their place every year, but those past games don’t have any bearing on this one. Tech is playing very good football, they are having a great season and they are playing with a lot of confidence. So it’s going to be a very big challenge to our football team.”
As a matter of fact, Tech is having a remarkable season.
The Orediggers lost 26-24 to EOU back on Sept. 1 and they haven’t lost since. They have their highest national ranking in 11 years and they are on the verge of unseating Carroll as Frontier champions, because the Diggers’ hold the championship tiebreaker over Carroll after beating the Saints back in early September. Tech also has the benefit of winning some very close games, including knocking off Southern Oregon in double-overtime. So, despite the fact the Lights swept Tech a year ago, including a 23-6 win in Butte, this isn’t the same Tech team as last year, not by a long shot.
“They (Diggers’) have just been really solid and they just don’t beat themselves,” Samson said. “With the exception of their first game of the season, they haven’t turned the football over, and they have been really good on defense throughout the year. They just don’t make mistakes.”
Defensively, Tech has been stingy on the scoreboard, only allowing 21 points per game. Tech is also strong against the run, allowing just 116 yards per game. But getting takeaways has been the biggest difference in Tech’s turnaround during Chuck Morrell’s second season at the helm. Tech is a league-leading plus-five in turnover margin, after being -13 a season ago. This year, Tech has picked off nine passes and recovered seven fumbles, and those are the kinds of numbers that win football games.
Meanwhile, turnovers have been the bane of Northern’s existence, as the Lights are -6 in turnover margin, which is last in the Frontier. MSU-N turned the ball over three times in a 35-14 loss at Carroll College last Saturday, and on the season, the Lights have gotten just 10 turnovers, while giving the ball away 16 times.
“That’s going to be the biggest key,” Samson said. “We can’t turn the ball over. We have to take care of it. And we have to put points on the board. We had things going pretty good for a few games, but now, we’ve started to miss on those scoring opportunities again lately. We can’t do that this week.”
Of course, Tech can score too. The Orediggers’ no-huddle, up-tempo passing attack is averaging 33 points and 418 yards per game. Tech is also very balanced with quarterback Nick Baker, who’s thrown for 1,915 yards and 18 touchdowns, and sophomore running back Pat Hansen, who leads the Frontier in rushing with 749 yards and nine TD’s. Hansen also happens to be Baker’s most reliable receiver, as he’s caught 34 passes for 200 yards out of the backfield this season.
“He’s a really good football player,” Samson said off the 5-8 sophomore running back from Ekalaka. “He is a hard runner, he has good speed and he’s really versatile. He can do a lot of different things for them. In my opinion, he’s one of the best football players in this league right now.
“Offensively, they are pretty tough to stop because they are balanced,” Samson added. “Baker is playing really well, he’s done a lot of good things this season, and they run it well. They also have a pretty big line that protects well. And with the no-huddle they run, they can put teams on their heels at times. So we have to come out and play smart football on defense. We have to have everybody on the same page and playing very hard on every down.”
Defense has been the Lights’ achilles heel the last two games. Just one week after surrendering over 500 yards passing to SOU, Carroll ran on the Lights for over 300. So Northern’s defense has taken some hits the last couple of weeks, though the Lights are still getting great production from linebackers James Chandless, David Arteaga and Jordan Van Voast, while tackle Mike Carbone is coming off two straight solid outings.
“We’re going to try some different things this week,” Samson said. “Look at a few new wrinkles defensively. We’ve got to find a way to be better there than we have been the last couple of games.”
Northern’s offense however, will have a chance to put some numbers up this week, as Tech is only fifth in the Frontier against the pass. Derek Lear is still second in the nation in both passing and total offense despite being sacked six times and throwing three interceptions last week in Helena. Brandon O’Brien and Kyle Johnston continue to put up big numbers as well, while junior Brandt Montelius is having a breakout season, with 21 catches for nearly 300 yards and three scores. Northern also hopes to have junior Orin Johnson back after he missed last week’s game with a staff infection.
But where the Lights really need to pick up the pace again is running the ball. After senior Stephen Silva torched Rocky Mountain College for 217 yards back on Sept. 29, he’s been held to just 32 yards on 19 carries, and as a team, the Lights have rushed for just 103 yards in two games.
Getting out of the running-game funk won’t be easy against Tech though. The Diggers’ possess a solid front seven and good run support on defense. Jacob Workman anchors a big Tech front line, while linebackers Mike Touzinsky and Joe Semansky have combined for 101 stops this season. Nate Thompson, Ketwuan Frank and Nate Kobold
have been great in the secondary, and have combined for eight picks this season.
“Defensively, Tech is big up front, and they have some really good linebackers. They have good athletes in the secondary and they don’t make a lot of mistakes,” Samson said. “They just play really solid defense. So we have to be patient and smart offensively. We need to do the things we do well and we need to execute. We can’t have the same mistakes we’ve been making the last few games or we’ll be in trouble. We just have to go out and play with a lot of fire.”
And Northern would like to avoid its second three-game losing streak in a season in which the Lights could still get to .500. Meanwhile, Tech is chasing a dream season, but with Carroll and SOU right there too, the Diggers’ can’t afford a slip-up at home this week.
“We’re playing for that word pride now,” Samson said. “We’ve got to go down to Tech and show a lot of pride and heart and get back to playing good football. That’s what our goal is, to play really well, to walk out of that game saying we played well and we played better than we did the week before.”
Saturday’s game between Northern and Tech will kick off at 1 p.m. in Butte. Northern returns to Havre for its final home game of the season next Saturday against Dickinson State, while Tech is home to face UM-Western.
Digging for a win
MSU-Northern Lights (2-5, 2-5) at No. 8 Montana Tech Orediggers
Saturday at 1 p.m.
at Alumni Coliseum
Radio: 92.5 KPQX FM
Internet: www.havredailynews.com or www.msun.edu/athletics