Havre Daily News Sports Editor
For all of the talk surrounding the Montana State University-Northern football team and its recent success, the true measure of that improvement will come on Saturday when the Lights face the No.1-ranked Carroll College Fighting Saints at 1 p.m. at Nelson Stadium in Helena.
"This is the game where we see how much better we really are," said Lights head coach Mark Samson. "Carroll is the measuring stick for programs and we'll see how we stack up."
With their recent success under head coach Mike Van Diest, the Saints are the premiere program in NAIA, having won the last three NAIA national championships. They are the program that all other schools, not just Northern, measure themselves against."
Carroll has won its last eight games, including a 27-7 handling over then No. 4 Azusa Pacific last weekend in Helena.
"They're good. There's no doubt about that," Samson said. "They return just about everybody from a team that won the national championship."
Well, not quite everybody, it just feels that way to Samson. Carroll did lose did lose all-conference receiver Kevin McCutcheon and fellow receiver Justin Wigen, along with all-conference linemen Paul Barnett on offense. On defense, the Saints lost Chinook's Mike Maddox, who was an all-conference player, along with all-conference nose guard Kevin Cicero - not exactly wholesale losses on either side of the ball.
Offensively, Carroll returns All-American quarterback Tyler Emmert, who is the reigning conference offensive MVP. Emmert is wrapping up a brilliant college career and is considered one of the most prolific passers in Frontier history. If it seems like he's been in college for 14 years, think about how Samson feels.
"Tyler is just solid," Samson said. "Last year, he played with a bad shoulder for most of the season and was still pretty good. He's healthy this year and has been playing well."
In his fourth year as the Saints starting quarterback, Emmert just doesn't get rattled. This season he has already completed 34 of 53 passes for 473 yards and five touchdowns. He's also ran for a score.
He is surrounded by weapons with all-conference running backs Ryan Grosulak and Jed Thomas and receivers Tyler Peterson, Zach Bumgarner, Dustin Michaelis and KG's Casey Crites.
Grosulak and Thomas form a punishing duo of running backs. In last week's win, they combined for 197 yards on the ground.
"People still think that Carroll wants to throw the ball all over the field," Samson said. "But they've been a very balanced team the last few years. I really think that they to want to hurt you up front with the run first and get you on your heels, and then, throw the ball."
Emmert is only averaging a little more than 25 pass attempts per game, but when he does throw, he's amazingly efficient. Despite the loss of two starting receivers, the Saints receiving corp has been good early, particularly Peterson.
Peterson played for the University of Montana two years ago, but left the school in search of more playing time. The Helena native returned home and after sitting out last season, appears to be a major playmaker in the conference. Of Emmert's five touchdown passes, four have gone to Peterson.
"It seems like we have to prepare for a play-making receiver every week," Samson said. "Tyler is a great athlete. He's fast and has very good quicks. We don't want him to catch the ball in a lot of open space."
Bumgarner and Michaelis are more possession-type receivers, while Crites caught a 37-yard touchdown pass against Azusa. It was his first touchdown of his young Carroll career.
However, what really makes Carroll so effective offensively is its offensive line. Led by center Kyle Baker and seniors Nick Hammons, Dan Mazurek and Jason Ostler and sophomores Bryson Pelc, Scott Holbrook and Bryan Camino, the Saints line is the best in the Frontier.
"They just give Emmert so much time to pass," Samson said. "He can sit back there all day and pick teams apart. Baker is the best linemen in the conference, they use him to really set up the run."
While Emmert, Grosulak, Peterson and the Carroll offense garner much of the headlines, the Saints' defense is still going about its work in its usual efficient, workman-like manner. Carroll has surrendered a total of 21 points this season. Last year, the Saints limited teams to 9.1 points and 236 yards of total offense per game - the best in the conference.
"I wouldn't say that their defense is overlooked," Samson said. "Maybe the better word is overshadowed. I guarantee you, no coach overlooks their defense."
The defense is led by the reigning conference defensive player of the year in linebacker Gary Cooper and returns all but three starters.
"They have speed everywhere on their defense," Samson said. "They aren't the biggest team, but they run to the football and tackle well."
The defensive line lost Cicero, but returns starters Jeff Shirley and Chris Ramstead, while senior Tom Boyle will take over for Cicero. Joining Cooper at linebacker are Seamus Molloy, Jeff Pasha and Josh Schmidt, all of whom played extensively last season.
The secondary is just as strong with three-year starting safeties and all-conference players A.J. Porrini and Regan Mack returning, along with all-conference cornerback Matt Thomas. Talented sophomore Nick Milodragovich will play the other corner.
"They're so experienced that it allows them to do a lot of different things defensively," Samson said. "They're just solid."
Northern got crushed 65-3 in the first meeting last year, but lost the second game just 28-6. The Lights never could get much going offensively in either game, but it was a common occurrence for most of Carroll's opponents.
"No one else in the league did much against their defense, especially in the second half of the season," he said.
With all that talent returning, it seems that the youthful Lights are outmatched, at least on paper. But Samson knows football games aren't played on paper.
Still, Northern has been much more efficient offensively this season. The Lights are averaging 32.5 points and 366.5 yards per game. They will be without starting wide receiver Clint Herrera, who suffered a nasty ankle sprain last weekend in the loss to UM-Western.
It will take a near-perfect effort from both Northern's offense and defense for a Light win, but it is something that Samson believes is possible.
"I'm going with the attitude that we can win," he said. "I talked to the kids about shocking the state and opening some eyes. Last year, a lot of our kids didn't believe they could beat them before we even stepped on the field. They need to believe that if they play hard for 60 minutes, good things will happen."
The game can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM or at www.msun.edu/athletics.