By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
Carroll College quarterback Tyler Emmert hasn't been in school for the last 10 years. It just feels like that to opposing coaches.
Emmert and his seemingly endless eligibility will be on display on Saturday when he leads the top-ranked two-time defending NAIA national champion Carroll College Saints into Blue Pony Stadium to take on the Montana State University-Northern football team in its home opener.
"It does feel like he's been around forever," said Northern head coach Mark Samson. "He and (Kevin) McCutcheon and (Jeff) Shirley have playing in their system for a long time."
To put it simply, there hasn't been a better player in NAIA football the last two years than Tyler Emmert. He has the hardware to prove it, garnering national player of the year honors the past two seasons and leading the Saints on an impressive 20-game winning streak dating back to three years ago.
"He's as good as they come," Samson said. "When I watched Carroll against Central Washington, they didn't look as sharp as they usually do, but (Emmert) made some really impressive throws for some big plays"
Indeed, Carroll did what it had to do, coming from behind in overtime to defeat NCAA Division II power Central Washington 27-21.
That lack of sharpness is something Carroll head coach Mike Van Diest wasn't surprised at seeing early in the season. He'll be the first to admit that this team is in a little different situation than past years.
"We lost 20 players from last year," Van Diest said. "We have a lot of new faces and knew personalities that we are trying to get to come together It takes about three or four games to find out who you are."
Who the Saints are? The answer is simple. They are still probably the deepest and most talented team in the Frontier Conference, with a solid mixture of veterans like Emmert, McCutcheon and Shirley.
After losing All-American wide receiver Mark Gallik to graduation, McCutcheon helped ease the loss by catching nine passes for 235 yards and a touchdown against CWU.
Shirley is a returning all-conference selection at defensive end, who uses linebacker-type speed to blow by blockers.
Carroll's talent doesn't stop there. Junior Kyle Baker is a returning all-conference performer, who anchors the offensive line from his center position.
The Saints also return a pair of all-conference linebackers in Gary Cooper and former Chinook standout Mike Maddox and all-conference defensive backs Regan Mack and A.J. Porrini.
One thing that was particularly effective for CWU against Carroll was the vertical passing and two-back attack. Central picked on cornerback Matt Thomas, who replaced graduated HHS standout Jarrod Wirt, on several occasions, racking up yardage and taking an early lead. Thomas had the last laugh, intercepting a pass in overtime. But still, CWU had some scoring opportunities.
"The first quarter we struggled against the two-back game that Central ran," Van Diest said. "We made some adjustments in the second half. But we know Northern also runs a similar look, so we have to be prepared."
Carroll has had plenty of time to prepare. The Saints opened the season two weeks ago, and then had a bye week last weekend after Idaho State canceled their scheduled game this summer. It's a situation that Van Diest or his players didn't particularly care for, but accepted nonetheless.
"It just feels like we've been practicing for too long," Van Diest said. "The kids are just looking for a game. We didn't have much choice since Idaho State canceled so late, we couldn't find a replacement. But it has allowed us to go back to the drawing board and work on some things."
Conversely, Northern has only one week to prepare the Saints, and they can't really even draw on last week's preparation for Dickinson State as much help.
"It's a completely different mindset," Samson said. "Dickinson is a straight power team that loads up the line and brings it right at you. Carroll is a little more finesse. They like to spread you out and pick you apart."
With that in mind, Samson and his staff added some new offensive and defensive schemes this week, specifically for the Saints.
"The kids and my staff have really worked hard this week ," Samson said. "We've added some new schemes on both sides of the ball that will hopefully help us match up better with Carroll."
Defensively, the Saints will run more stunts and blitzes than DSU. Dickinson likes to stay in its base defense and tries to outmuscle and outhit teams. Carroll doesn't have that kind of size, so instead, the Saints try to outquick teams on defense.
"They're going to use different stunts, different slants and different coverages," Samson said. "We've worked this week on getting good pre-snap reads."
Van Diest admitted to being a little wary of Northern's skill players.
"I was very impressed with Don Saisbury," Van Diest said. "He's a kid, along with Kyle Samson, who we recruited pretty heavily. We know they are capable of making big plays at any time. We need to control the football on offense and execute some long drives with a lot of first downs and keep Don and Kyle off the field."
Any time the Saints have the ball on offense, they are a threat to score, no matter the field position.
"Offensively, they're going to keep us spread out," Samson said. "And they can strike so dang quick. In the first half, Central Washington really hit Tyler hard a few times. I am sure they worked on not letting that happen again. But we have to find some way to get some pressure on him, because if he can just sit back there, he'll pick us apart."
Samson admits that there is no way a team is going to shut down or shut out Carroll's offense. Rather, he wants to slow it down and avoid the big plays.
"They're going to get their yards," he said. "We can't get frustrated when they make plays. But we have to avoid the big plays. It seems like every series Carroll got at least one big play in their first game. We can't have that."
More than anything, Samson wants to see his team improve considerably from last week. With the return a few missing starters and a game under their belts, its a definite possibility.
"Last weekend was an eye opener for the kids," Samson said. "They are starting to understand how hard they have to work to have success at this level. I do think we're better prepared this week."
But Samson wasn't just referring to the Lights' game plan, he was referring more toward his players' mental makeup.
"We've been really stressing the mental aspect," he said. "We've talked to them a lot about preparation and what it means to be a college football player."
Kickoff between Northern and Carroll is scheduled for 1 p.m. and can be heard locally on 92.5 KPQX-FM.