Havre Daily News Sports Editor
To beat the Carroll College football team, you don't need to be perfect, but you have to be pretty close. Unfortunately, for the Montana State University-Northern football team, there was no perfection Saturday at Nelson Stadium in Helena.
The Lights played unquestionably better against the juggernaut Saints than they did last year. However, missed opportunities and mistakes cost them a chance for pulling off the upset in a 31-14 loss.
"We played pretty well, we really did," said Lights head coach Mark Samson. "They're a very good team. They're well coached, well disciplined and just don't make any assignment mistakes."
The missed opportunities began early in the game, though Northern held its own early on.
Carroll got on the board first with a 40-yard field goal from Marcus Miller early in the first quarter.
Northern seemed poised to take the lead late in the first quarter when quarterback Kyle Samson connected with running back Don Saisbury on a 70-yard pass, giving the Lights first-and-goal from the 8-yard line. However, the Carroll defense shut down Northern on the next three plays. On fourth down, kicker Chaz Kountz missed a 21-yard field goal attempt. To get so deep in Carroll territory without getting points was disappointing for Samson.
"Even if we get the field goal, it would've helped out a lot," he said. "You have to get points in that situation, especially against a team like Carroll."
The game stayed close for much of the first half as the Lights came up with a key goal-line stand to thwart a prime Carroll scoring opportunity.
But it was only a matter of time before the Saints' offense would strike on a big play. Quarterback Tyler Emmert connected with Dustin Michaelis on 34-yard touchdown pass.
"We had to play man-to-man quite a bit because of how good they are with the run and we gave up some big plays," Samson said.
Northern also picked a bad time to commit its first turnover of the season as a shovel pass play found the turf and was promptly recovered by Carroll with less than a minute remaining the first half.
Emmert moved the Saints into scoring position with a pair of quick passes. Carroll set up for a field goal attempt by Miller with two seconds remaining the half. However, holder Zach Bumgarner took the snap, rolled away and scored from 7 yards out for a touchdown as time expired.
"Nobody on the defense reacted to it," Samson said. "It was an ugly play all the way around."
Instead of being down 10-3, 10-7 or even 10-0, the Lights found themselves trailing 17-0 at halftime.
The Lights rallied in the second half and got on the scoreboard when Kyle Samson connected with Nick Arnold a 26-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter to cut the lead to 17-7.
Carroll answered with a touchdown pass of its own. Emmert found Bumgarner on a 43-yard scoring strike to open the fourth quarter to go up 24-7.
Shortly after the score was where things took a turn for the odd.
After forcing Carroll to punt, Northern appeared to get a break as Carroll's longsnapper launched the ball over punter Ben Chaet's head. Northern's Marc McBryan recovered the ball in the end zone for an apparent touchdown. However, referees flagged Andy Leichtnam for unsportsmanlike conduct for hitting the longsnapper. Instead of the touchdown, Carroll was awarded the ball.
"The rule is you can't hit the snapper on a punt until one second has gone by," Samson said. "The ball went so far over the punter's head and Andy saw the ball and went after it. He knocked the snapper down. It wasn't a terribly vicious hit or anything. But after looking at the film, the center never lifted his head the whole time even after he snapped and I think that's what the ref saw."
While Samson isn't supposed to comment on referees' decisions in public, the play had some major ramifications.
"Instead of it being 24-14 and us having a bunch of momentum, it's 24-7 and they have a first down," he said.
Northern was whistled for another unsportsmanlike conduct penalty two plays later and sophomore linebacker Dilan Saisbury was ejected from the game. The 15-yard penalty set up a 4-yard touchdown pass from Emmert to Tyler Peterson.
"We definitely lost our composure after that play," Samson said. "It's tough because the kids are out there competing hard and they were pretty upset. But we can't lose composure like that. That's not we want from our program."
Northern picked up a late touchdown when Saisbury rumbled in from 4 yards out with four minutes remaining. But it was much too late for a Lights' comeback.
"Our defense was on the field entirely too much in that game," Samson said. "I think they ran about 90 plays to our 60. We just had trouble sustaining drives on offense."
Carroll racked up 562 yards of total offense, including 205 on the ground. Emmert complete 31 of 46 passes for 357 yards and three touchdowns. He also etched his name in the Carroll record books by eclipsing 10,000 yards passing, 1,000 yards rushing and 100 touchdowns in his career.
Carroll tailback Ryan Grosulak had 113 yards rushing, while Bumgarner had nine catchers for 143 yards.
"They're very balanced offensively which makes them tough to defend," Samson said. "We had to take some chances to stop their running game and that hurt us a couple times with the pass. They've gone over 500 yards of total offense in their last three games."
Northern had 355 yards of total offense. Kyle Samson completed 15 of 25 passes for 254 yards. Saisbury caught five passes for 107 yards, while Nick Arnold and Dan Wirtzberger had four catches each. The Lights managed just 115 yards of rushing.
"They're very tough defensively," Coach Samson said. "They're so fast. They get to the ball and tackle. It definitely took our offensive line a little while to adjust to how fast they are."
The Lights will now return home to face Rocky Mountain College on Saturday. It will be part of Northern's homecoming celebration.
"We need to start getting ready for Rocky," Samson said. "We need to get a win and get that good feeling back."
MSU-Northern 0 0 7 7 - 14
Carroll College 3 14 0 14 - 31
CC - FG Marcus Miller 40, 10:14
CC - Dustin Michaelis 34 pass from Tyler Emmert (Miller kick), 1:39
CC - Zach Bumgarner 7 run (Miller kick), :00
MSU-N - Nick Arnold 26 pass from Kyle Samson (Chaz Kountz kick), 7:48
CC - Bumgarner 43 pass from Emmert (Miller kick), 13:33
CC - Tyler Peterson 4 pass from Emmert (Miller kick), 6:05
MSU-N - Don Saisbury 4 run (Kountz kick), 4:00
First downs 15 30
Rushes-yards 31-101 41-205
Passing yards 254 357
Total offense 355 562
Passes 15-25-1 31-47-0
Punts-ave 6-36 3-37
Pen-yards 8-104 6-42
Fum-lost 1-1 2-2
RUSHING - MSU-N: Kyle Samson 12-38, Don Saisbury 12-33, Zach Wermers 6-28, Saxton Shearer 1-2. CC: Ryan Grosulak 22-113, Sean Herrin 5-44, Jed Thomas 8-33, Tyler Emmert 5-8, Zach Bumgarner 1-7.
PASSING - MSU-N: Kyle Samson 15-25-1 - 254. CC: Tyler Emmert 31-46-0 - 357, Josh Barnett 0-1-0 - 0.
RECEIVING - MSU-N: Don Saisbury 6-101, Dan Wirtzberger 4-83, Nick Arnold 4-59, Marc Samson 1-7. CC: Zach Bumgarner 9-143, Tyler Peterson 7-62, Bryce Doak 5-47, Dustin Michaelis 3-62, Jed Thomas 3-13, Travis Browne 1-12, Marshall McEwen 1-9, Casey Crites 1-5, Sean Herrin 1-4.