Havre Daily News Sports Editor
Sometimes the maturation of a college football program is a lengthy process, and sometimes it seems to happen overnight.
Three weeks ago the Montana State University-Northern Lights struggled in a close loss at Montana Tech as part of the growing process under second-year head coach Mark Samson. Since that time, the Lights have grown by leaps and bounds, with back-to-back thumpings of UM-Western and nationally ranked Eastern Oregon.
On Saturday afternoon, the growing process continues as the Lights welcome No. 1-ranked Carroll College to Blue Pony Stadium in a pivotal Frontier Conference showdown for both teams.
Saturday's game has large implications for both teams. Three-time defending NAIA national champion Carroll (6-0) is on the verge of securing yet another Frontier Conference championship, as well as home games throughout the NAIA playoffs.
The Lights (4-3) are trying to fight their way to the next level in the Frontier, and Northern still has an outside chance at the playoffs. MSU-N is trying to chase down second-place Montana Tech, as well as secure a coveted winning season.
With all riding on Saturday's game, one thing remains unchanged: Carroll is still the big brother on the block, and Northern is still trying to catch up. That fact remains even though the Lights performed admirably last month in Helena when they lost to Carroll, 31-14.
“I thought we played very well the first time we played them,” Samson said. “We made some mistakes at critical times, but for the most part we played pretty well.
“I think since then we have played pretty well,” he added. “We have cleaned up a lot of the things we needed to, so hopefully we'll be a little more consistent this time around.”
The Lights' performance also got the attention of veteran Carroll head coach Mike VanDiest. But VanDiest knew right from the start of the season that the Lights were going to be a different type of foe.
“Northern had our attention right after they beat Dickinson State,” VanDiest said. “They showed right away that they are a much-improved football team, and they played very well down here.
“This is a big game on our schedule,” he added. “It is certainly a big game for both teams.”
Unlike the first meeting between the two teams, Carroll comes into Saturday's game on fire. The Saints thrashed Montana Tech last Saturday, and they seem to be peaking at just the right time.
“Carroll is obviously playing very well right now,” Samson said. “They have just been dominating teams the last few weeks.”
Samson also knows that preparing for Carroll is only half of the battle. The Saints have been close to invincible for most of this decade, and preparing and playing are two different things.
“They won't change a thing coming up here,” Samson said. “To play with them, you have to go out and execute in all phases of the game. Hopefully, we'll be up to it on Saturday.”
One factor VanDiest sees in Northern's success this season is playmakers. Northern has outstanding talent all over the field, much like the Saints. In a game like this, VanDiest said big plays will likely determine the outcome.
“Both teams' defenses are very good,” he said. “But with these offenses, the defenses are going to have their hands full.
“Both offenses are so explosive that the game will probably come down to who can make big plays on both sides of the ball,” he added.
Indeed, everyone knows about NAIA player of the year Tyler Emmert. The Carroll senior has been lighting up Frontier Conference secondaries seemingly forever. Emmert ranks first in every passing category in the league. VanDiest also has the league's top two rushers in Ryan Grosulak (108 ypg) and Jed Thomas (77 ypg).
Northern has its share of talent.
Kyle Samson is the league's third-rated passer and fourth-leading rusher. In all, Samson is averaging almost 300 total yards per game.
“Kyle is throwing the ball so well this season,” VanDiest said. “That makes him even more dangerous.
“But what really makes their offense so good is the emergence of so many playmakers,” he added. “They have three really good running backs and some very talented wide receivers.”
Five of the top 10 receivers in the Frontier will be on the field at Blue Pony Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Carroll's Tyler Peterson is second in the league in receiving yards, and he leads the conference in receptions per game. Northern's Don Saisbury and Danny Wirtzberger are fifth and sixth in the league in receiving, and Carroll's Dustin Michaelis and Zach Bumgarner are seventh and eighth.
Also, Carroll and Northern are one and two in the league in most defensive categories. The Lights possess the league's leading tackler in sophomore safety Marc Samson. Kennedy Anderson and Dilan Saisbury are among the top five in tackles.
Carroll's Jeff Shirley will certainly be a concern for the Lights' offensive line. Shirley leads the league in quarterback sacks with 7.5.
Another factor that may weigh into the Lights' ability to stand up to Carroll on Saturday is the fact that the Lights are playing at home for the third straight week and they are playing very well in the friendly confines of Blue Pony Stadium.
“I really like how our team is playing right now,” Samson said. “We played a pretty complete game against Eastern Oregon, and I expect us to come out and play very well against Carroll.”
VanDiest couldn't agree more.
“Northern has come a long way and it is credit to the tremendous job coach Samson has done with them,” he said. “This is a big game for us and we're going up there expecting a real battle.”
Saturday's Frontier Conference clash between Carroll College and MSU-N will kick off at 1 p.m. at Blue Pony Stadium. The game can be heard locally on 610 KOJM-AM.