George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor firstname.lastname@example.org
At the beginning of the season, no one would have thought that UMWestern’s visit to Eastern Oregon University on Saturday would have lasting implications on not only the Frontier Conference, but the NAIA playoff picture. But that’s exactly how it is as No. 21 Western looks to hold on to second place when the Bulldogs (4-2, 4-1) play in LaGrande’ Ore., at 12 p.m. Saturday. Western is alone in second place in the league standings at the halfway point of the season, and with No. 14 Montana State University-Northern headed to Dillon next weekend, the game with the Mountaineers is crucial for Western’s playoff aspirations. Question marks surround this week’s game in Oregon because for the second week in a row, Western quarterback Keali’i Perbera went down with a shoulder injury in a win over Rocky Mountain College last week. Perbera, who is second in the Frontier in both passing and total offense might or might not play this week, and that is dangerous for the Bulldogs because EOU is hungry for its first victory of the season. The Mountaineers are coming off a well-played game in a 27-13 loss to MSU-N last week in Havre, and they looked especially good throwing the football, which is not Western’s strong suit on defense. EOU is last in the league in most offensive categories, but the Mounties moved the ball in the first half on the Lights’ defense and they should have more success against Western. EOU is also playing at home for the first time in three weeks, which also makes Western’s plight this week that much more difficult. However, the Bulldogs still have star running back Derrick Pluff, who went over 200 yards for the third time this season in Western’s win over Rocky in Dillon. Pluff leads the league in rushing at 98.7 yards per game, while Montana Tech’s Corey Warner is second, followed by Carroll College’s Sean Herrin and MSU-N freshman quarterback Garren Hammons. Hammons and rushing the football will also be the focal point of a critical game in Havre on Saturday. If the No. 14 MSU-N Lights (4-2, 3-2) can get past Tech (3-3, 2-3) at Blue Pony Stadium, they will have reeled off three straight victories after two consecutive losses had dropped them to 1-2 in league play. Meanwhile, Tech is looking to rebound after its shutout loss at home to Carroll last Saturday. The Orediggers are below .500 in league play this season, and their playoff hopes are quickly sliding away. Defense is always critical in the Tech/Northern rivalry a series that MSU-N has dominated as of late. The Lights have shut down the Tech running game, especially in a 20-0 win in Butte last month. And now MSU-N has the top-rated rushing offense in the league after the Lights rolled up over 300 yards on the ground in their win over EOU last Saturday. Tech is second in the league in rushing, but the Orediggers haven’t quite been the same since they lost starter Teague Egan to an injury two weeks ago. Havre fans will likely only see one of two Havre High graduates that suit up for Tech on the turf at Blue Pony Stadium Saturday. Levi Briese is Tech’s starting fullback, but former starting quarterback Justin Kegel, has been replaced by freshman Matt Komac, at least for the time being. Kegel struggled in his last three starts against Northern, including a tough four-interception game last month in Butte. And taking care of the ball will be critical for both teams on Saturday as Northern has won the turnover battle in each of the last three meetings, which have all turned out to be Lights’ wins. Things are looking up for Carroll College these days as well. The Saints (6-0, 5-0) are undefeated and are still yielding a gawdy 1.9 points per game after shutting out Tech last Saturday. Carroll also moved up one spot to No. 2 in the latest NAIA poll, setting the Saints up for not only an eighth straight conference title, but a potential No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the playoffs next month. Carroll hosts struggling Rocky on Saturday. The Bears (2-4, 1-5) scored just three points against Carroll last month in Billings.