No. 9 Lights host No. 1 Saints Saturday in highly anticipated rematch of Sept. 23 thriller in Helena
George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor email@example.com
Before Montana State University- Northern’s heartbreaking 12-7 loss at Carroll College on Sept. 23, Lights’ head coach Mark Samson said that the game between MSU-N and Carroll would not make or break MSU-N’s season. And veteran Saints’ head coach Mike Van Diest shared those sentiments about his own team. But now it is late October, and things like the Frontier Conference championship and the NAIA playoffs are hanging in the balance as No. 1-ranked Carroll and No. 9 MSU-N prepare for the second battle of the season Saturday at Blue Pony Stadium in Havre. For Northern, which has won six straight games since losing to Carroll just over a month ago, Saturday’s game is being tabbed the biggest in MSU-N history. But the atmosphere and circumstances surrounding Saturday’s tilt are different than in previous meetings between the Lights and Saints. In the past, the Lights were a team just hoping to springboard their program with a win over an NAIA and Frontier Conference dynasty. However, given the Lights play this season, things are much different now. “These kids understand how big this game is,” Samson said. “In a lot of ways, the fact that we are playing Carroll for a chance at a conference championship and the playoffs says a lot about how far we’ve come as a program, and that is something all of us can be proud of. “But right now our focus is on trying to find a way to win this game,” he added. “Because a win against Carroll would go a long way towards what we’re trying to accomplish this season. And it is important because we still have two more big games to go after this one. But it certainly is an exciting time for our program and for our school.” And while, Northern’s immediate goals are more about championships and playoffs rather than making history, Lights’ players like Helena native Dilan Saisbury can also shed even more perspective on how important Saturday’s tilt with Carroll is, both to the players and the program. “We are really focused as a team and we have made a point to approach this game like any other game,” Saisbury said. “But at the same time, it is pretty exciting to have Carroll coming here with so much on the line. I have a lot of family and friends in Helena, and they will all be in the stands on Saturday. It is going to be a lot of fun.” While Saturday’s game could mean everything to an MSU-N team, the football program and its fan base trying to get to where the Saints have been for so long, a Carroll win would not only add to its already cemented legacy as a true Frontier Conference dynasty, but a win over the Lights would also do a lot for the Saints’ immediate goals. Carroll is 8-0 this season and 7-0 in conference play. And while a victory in Havre on Saturday won’t lock up the conference championship, it would give the fourtime defending NAIA champions some breathing room with a another huge road game at Montana Tech next week. “Anytime you get to late October and you have had the success that both us and Northern have had this season, the game is going to be magnified quite a bit,” Van Diest said. “Our kids are fully aware of what is at stake this weekend, and there actually is a lot riding on these next three weeks for us, for Northern and for Montana Tech. “Everything is still up in the air,” he added. “So our kids are fully aware of the importance of this football game and they are aware of just how good MSUNorthern is.”
Actually, since the day Carroll edged past the Lights on a late John Barnett touchdown pass, both teams have been very good. Defense has been the order of the day for both the Lights and Saints. It was in Helena on Sept. 23 and it will likely play a huge role Saturday in Havre. Carroll and Northern have two of the best defenses, not just in the Frontier Conference, but in all of NAIA football. The Saints are surrendering a mere 4.1 points per game and Northern allows just a shade over 10 points per contest. Both teams have All-Conference and All- American candidates all over the field. Linebackers like Carroll’s Owen Koeppen and Kennedy Anderson and Saisbury for the Lights have had monstrous seasons. And teams have had little success throwing or running on either the Saints or Lights secondary. Both teams have shut down corners like Carroll’s Nick Milodragovich and the Lights’ Khalin Anderson and Jake Eldridge. And former Helena Capital star Marc Samson is easily one of the best safeties in the NAIA. But as good as both defenses are, Van Diest is concerned with Northern’s offense, and Mark Samson knows that the Saints have improved every week. So despite the low-scoring first meeting between the two teams, the offenses will have their time on center stage Saturday. “Both offenses have grown since the first game,” Van Diest said. “I think we have made a lot of progress and we all know just how balanced Northern is. Kyle Samson is throwing the ball so well this year, and their running backs are very good. Defense will play a big part in this game, but I think both offenses have improved since we played the first time, and whoever takes care of the football will have a good chance of winning this game.” Said Samson: “Both defenses really get after it. Carroll has just been tough all season and I think we’re a pretty darn good defensive team too. There is a lot of speed on both defenses. But we’re healthy again now, and I think that we’re doing some pretty good things offensively. I also think Carroll has improved a lot offensively. They are running the ball very well right now. But I think the game is going to come down to limiting mistakes like turnovers and bad penalties. In big games like this, those are types of things that you win or lose on.” Offensively, despite different philosophies, the Saints and Lights are eerily similar. The Lights lead the league in scoring, while the two teams are almost deadlocked in total offense. Northern may have the edge in the passing game with Kyle Samson and receivers Nick Bodeman, Coda Tchida and Jeff Van Nest, but the Saints have two of the leagues best rushers in Ryan Grosulak and Jed Thomas. And Barnett has gone over 100 yards three times this season from the quarterback position. Still all of the game planning, the stats and the preparation won’t deter from the fact that Saturday’s game is not only pivotal for the immediate future for both teams, it is quite simply the biggest college football game to be played in Blue Pony Stadium’s history. And everybody involved is keenly aware of what is at stake and what the outcome will mean for both teams. “It is certainly an exciting time for MSU-Northern football,” Mark Samson said. “Carroll is a great program and they are a very good football team again this year. They are extremely well coached and we have a tremendous amount of respect for them and what they have done over the years. “We feel like we are a very good football team right now too,” he added. “And our kids have been focused all season long, and they are excited about this game. They understand what we’re trying to accomplish this season, and I know and trust that they are ready to play their hearts out for 60 minutes on Saturday.” A capacity crowd at Blue Pony is expected for Saturday’s game between MSU-N and Carroll, and kickoff is slated for 1 p.m. The game can also be heard locally on 610 KOJM AM.