George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor firstname.lastname@example.org
When the Montana State University- Northern Lights take the field against the Carroll College Fighting Saints in the first round of the NAIA playoffs, there will certainly be a historical significance to the game. After all, Saturday’s game between No. 11 MSU-N and No. 4 Carroll at Nelson Stadium in Helena is the first playoff appearance in MSU-N school history. And on top of that, the Lights racked up a 9-2 overall record, the best in school history, and claimed their highest finish in the Frontier Conference since the school reintroduced football almost a decade ago. But as gratifying as all of that is, to the MSU-N players and coaches, Saturday is much more about a football game against one of the greatest dynasty’s in NAIA in history. Saturday is about the Lights chasing down their dream of claiming a national championship, and ironically, it all starts in their own back yard, the Frontier Conference. “I think one the most positive things about playing Carroll is that our kids won’t be wide eyed down there,” MSU-N head coach Mark Samson said. “We have played in front of a large crowd there before and we have a win over them. Our kids will be confident going into the game, and so will Carroll’s players, I’m sure. “There is such a familiarity to this game,” he added, “that I think you eliminate a lot of the things that normally surround a playoff game like this.” While the playoffs are always a more intense version of college football, the game between the Saints and Lights is extremely rare so early in the NAIA Championship Series. However, neither the Carroll or MSU-N camp has complained about the matchup, and Samson said, in many ways, it is an easier game to prepare for. “Both teams have played at a very high level for 11 games now,” he said. “I can’t imagine Carroll, really changing anything. I think you’re going to see them really stick to what they do well. And we know from playing them twice already that they do a lot of things very well. “Still, it is different,” he added. “Because as you practice all week you’re wondering if maybe they will change something up a little, because we know them so well and they know us just as well. It certainly is an unusual week, but it is a challenge our kids are very excited about.” Said Saints head coach Mike Van Diest: “This week has been just like how we prepared for Northern the second time. You always make some adjustments after the first time you play a team, but we know what is in front of us and we understand that this is the playoffs, and we just have to be focused and ready to play our best football of the season in this game.” There will be challenges for both teams on Saturday on both sides of the ball. Because of Carroll’s national championship pedigree, many have labeled the Lights an underdog despite the fact that MSU-N ended the Saints’ 29-game winning streak with a 10-3 in in Havre three weeks ago. But Van Diest, who lost a host of starters and NAIA All-Americans from the 2005 national championship team, doesn’t quite see it that way. “The reality is we don’t have very many kids who have actually played in the playoffs,” Van Diest said. “Half of our team has never even been to the playoffs, so I don’t think our past success can really make that much of a difference this week. I think this game is very even.” On the other side, Northern has just one player who has experienced playoff football. Starting quarterback Kyle Samson was a member of the 2003 Montana Grizzly team that went to the Division IAA playoffs.
After experience, it comes to strategy and execution on the field. Both teams have mirrored each other all season. The two teams are extremely close in most offensive categories and have been all season. And on the defensive side of the ball, it is hard to find an edge, either. Although Van Diest does see one area where his team needs to be better on Saturday. “We have to run the football much better this time,” Van Diest said. “They really shut us down in Havre, and if we can’t run it any better this time around, we could be in for a long afternoon.” MSU-N’s defense did hold the Saints’ rushing attack to a mere 45 yards in Havre. And while Carroll’s defense has been outstanding from start to finish this season, the MSU-N defense might be just as hot coming into Saturday. Northern has only allowed two offensive touchdowns in its last five games, and the Lights have only surrendered one TD to Carroll in eight quarters of play this season. “We played pretty well against Carroll the first two games, and we just have to keep doing what we have been doing,” Lights cornerback Khalin Anderson said. “We need to make sure we slow down their running game and make sure that we are also aware of their passing game.” And Northern’s concerns with the Saints’ defense is equally as valid. Despite the loss to the Lights, the Carroll defense is still surrendering a ridiculous five points per game, and sustaining drives has been a problem for everybody that has played Carroll this season. Plus, in both games against the Saints, Kyle Samson has been hampered by an ankle injury that has limited how much of the the MSU-N playbook the Lights can use. Samson was still hobbled in a dramatic 17-10 win over Montana Tech that clinched a playoff berth for the Lights last Saturday, and although he feels better, he will likely not be 100 percent by gametime. “Our offensive line has to play well on Saturday,” Mark Samson said. They played great against Montana Tech, and they will have to do it again this week. I think they have gotten better every week, and they will be a big key to our success this weekend.” So it is obvious as gametime approaches that both Carroll and Northern are so evenly matched that the game will likely be decided on things like turnovers, penalties and the intangibles like emotion and desire. “It is pretty clear that with both teams being as good as they are, and both defenses being so dominant, the game is going to come down to the team that makes the least mistakes,” Mark Samson said. “I think the kicking game will be critical and turnovers could decide the whole thing.” Said Van Diest: “Both teams are so solid, and both teams have played well the entire season, that this game is going to be decided on the little things. Field position, the kicking game, mistakes, things like that. But I do know that with how well both teams have played this season, I believe you are going to see both of us play our best football of the season.” And inside the helmet, both teams will have a lot of emotion for various reasons as well. Northern, striving to be where Carroll has already been so many times. Players from Helena, playing for MSU-N and returning to Helena for their first-ever playoff game. On the flip side, the Saints are playing to keep a hold on their place as national champions, despite bringing a mostly different roster into the 2006 playoffs. “I am really proud of this team,” Van Diest said. “We were pretty inexperienced at the start of the year. And then, after we lost in Havre, our backs were really against the wall at Montana Tech. And this team really has persevered. They have accomplished a lot this season, and I am just really proud of them. Said Samson: “This game means a lot to our kids. I wanted them to experience this pretty badly, and now we’re here and we’re playing Carroll College. It is a pretty special thing for this team, and I know you are going to see our kids come out with a lot of intensity and a lot of emotion. I know this, no matter what happens, it is going to be a darn good football game.” A crowd of about 6,000 is expected to attend Saturday’s opening round of the NAIA playoffs. The game between Carroll (10-1) and MSU-N (9-2) will kick off at 12:05 p.m. at Nelson Stadium in Helena.