Lights topple top-ranked Saints in front of a packed Blue Pony Stadium Saturday, snapping Carroll’s 29-game winning streak in the process
George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor email@example.com
There comes a time in every football program’s history that that one landmark victory finally happens. For the Montana State University- Northern Lights, many people pointed to Saturday as the day that would happen, and remarkably the No. 9 Lights lived up to the billing. MSU-N rode a stifling defensive performance and a gutsy second-half from senior Kyle Samson as well as all of the Lights’ offense to the biggest win in school history as the Lights beat No. 1- ranked Carroll College, 10-3 in front of a raucous crowd Saturday at Blue Pony Stadium in Havre. The win was MSU-N’s first over the Saints since the school reinstated football almost a decade ago. The victory also snapped the Saints’ 29-game winning streak and put the Lights in the driver’s seat to win at least a share of the Frontier Conference championship and clinch a spot in the NAIA playoffs next month. “The best way can I describe this is when you look at us two years ago, I don’t think very many people gave us a chance to be this good this quickly,” MSU-N head coach Mark Samson said. “So to beat this team and this program here in front of our fans is a very good feeling. It is special for me, for our players, our school and our fans here in Havre. “I also think this win really validates a lot of things that we have been trying to do here,” he added. “I think it helps us in the present and it will certainly help us in the future. It will be big for things like recruiting, because I think it will make kids now take a look at our school and our program and hopefully, they will want to be a part of this.” As everyone expected, Saturday’s game was packed with high drama. And with two of the NAIA’s best defenses going head-to-head, the final score was not a surprise to anyone. The Lights and Saints battled hard for four quarters, with neither defense giving much ground. The two teams combined for just 10 possessions in the first 30 minutes, with the Saints scoring on the game’s opening possession. Carroll drove down the field before the Lights’ defense stiffened and held Carroll to an early Marcus Miller field goal. Northern struck back just before halftime and got a critical field goal from Luke McKinley to tie the game at 3-3. “Our kicking game was important,” Mark Samson said. “Luke made some good kicks and Donny (Saisbury) had a couple of big punts into the wind. We did some really good things in the kicking game and those things were critical in a game like this.” As dramatic as the first 30 minutes were Saturday, nothing could top what unfolded in the second half. Defense again played a key role, and none bigger than Lights’ linebacker Dilan Saisbury’s interception of Carroll quarterback John Barnett with 31 seconds left in the third quarter. The interception was Barnett’s second turnover of the day, and eventually resulted in him being benched for a series. And it set up the only touchdown of the game. “That is a linebacker’s dream,” Saisbury, a Helena native said. “I read the quarterbacks’ eyes and knew he was coming my way. It is an amazing feeling right now. Knowing that you can make a big play against Carroll to help us win the game. It doesn’t get much better than this.” After Saisbury’s interception, Northern’s offense did what Carroll’s couldn’t, which is capitalize on a turnover. Just before Barnett’s pick, the Saints got a controversial Coda Tchida fumble that could have spelled disaster for MSU-N. Instead, the Saints turned it back over, and Northern was in the end zone minutes later. “We didn’t play our best game today,” Carroll head coach Mike Van Diest said. “Not to take anything away from Northern, because they played a great football game. But we made some mistakes on offense, we made some bad decisions and I made some bad calls. It was just not our best day.” Northern’s only touchdown came by way of a hobbled Kyle Samson taking the Carroll turnover and making two critical throws to tight end Steve Aherns to set MSU-N up. Aherns’ second catch got the Lights down to the 10-yard line and Zach Wermers moved it six yards closer. On third and goal, another Helena native, Don Saisbury, sent the MSU-N faithful into a frenzy by plunging into the end zone from one yard out to put the Lights ahead 10-3 with 11:51 remaining in the game. And despite Carroll’s best efforts, Saisbury’s touchdown would prove to be the game-winner on what turned out to be a magical day for the Lights’ program. Carroll tried to rally, attempting a fake punt that was snuffed out by Kennedy Anderson midway through the fourth quarter. Then, after Northern put together another quality drive that resulted in coach Samson opting not to kick a field goal with just over a minute to go, the Saints, with Barnett back under center, made one furious attempt at tying the game. Carroll drove the ball down to the MSU-N 15-yard line with mere seconds remaining, before time finally ran out on Carroll’s undefeated streak, their No. 1-ranking and their stranglehold on solo first place in the Frontier Conference.
“I decided not to kick right there, because our defense was playing so darn good that I knew we wouldn’t let them go 87 yards and score on us,” Mark Samson said. “There were a lot of things that could have happened if we didn’t make the kick or if it would have gotten blocked, and with the way the clock was working against Carroll, I knew our defense would finish the game for us. And even though we gave up some yards on that last drive, our defense did a great job of finishing like I knew they would.” The win not only puts Northern into a first-place tie in the league standings, as both the Saints and Lights are 7-1 with two games remaining, it almost assures the Lights of at least an at-large bid in the playoffs. But Saturday was clearly more than just another win in what has already been an amazing season of MSU-N football. “I’ve never felt like this after a game,” Kyle Samson said. “I have won state championships in high school and I’ve been a part of some great teams before. “But to beat Carroll College in our house,” he added. “For myself and my family being from Helena and to beat the four-time national championships, it is just the best day I have ever had as a football player. This team has so much heart and so much pride, and this win is all about us as a team.” As expected, the final numbers were extremely close. Carroll outgained Northern 244-239 in total offense. But the Lights dominated the Saints on the ground. Northern rolled up 123 yards rushing, 61 coming from Don Saisbury and another 43 from Wermers. The Lights’ defense held Carroll to 45 yards on the ground, which is normally the Saints’ bread and butter. “What can you really say about our defense,” Mark Samson said. “They are amazing. They played so hard and so physical in what was a really physical football game. There were some sore bodies today. But our defense was just amazing from start to finish. “Dilan Saisbury is just playing tremendously good football,” he added. “And Andy Leichtnam had a really big day as well. I also think our secondary played really good all day. They didn’t make many mistakes, and as a result, Carroll couldn’t do a whole lot against us offensively.” Kyle Samson was 14-for-27 for 116 yards passing and he didn’t throw an interception. Saxton Shearer caught three balls for 46 yards and Nick Bodeman made five catches for 25 yards. “There were some spots where I thought we could have executed better on offense,” Mark Samson said. “But when Kyle got hurt, it just limited us offensively. You also have to give a lot of credit to Carroll’s defense. They are a great group and they just don’t put a slow player on the field. It’s incredible. “Still, this win is a tribute to all of our kids,” he added. “They just don’t quit. They played hard the entire game and they found ways to get it done. I am just really proud of this team right now.” Samson was also proud of the effort of the MSU-N fans, who showed up in droves Saturday to help create a true college football atmosphere. “It was pretty special to see and hear everything that was going on in the stands,” Samson said. “I mean people showed up really early, and the support was amazing. As a team, that support means everything to us. It was just a really special day.” The Saints (7-1, 8-1) and Lights (7- 1, 8-1) will now have a two-game race to the Frontier Conference finish line. With both teams virtually assured of a spot in the playoffs, the next two weeks will determine a conference champion and where both teams will fall in the NAIA playoff bracket. “This is a great feeling,” Dilan Saisbury said. “The whole team put their whole hearts into this game, and it went our way for once. “But we also realize as great as this win is, we haven’t really won anything yet,” he added. “We still have two really tough games to go, and we have to refocus and get ready to play next week.” The Saints are on the road at Montana Tech on Saturday, while the Lights have to make the trek to La Grande, Ore., to take on a dangerous Eastern Oregon team.