George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor email@example.com
They say defense wins championships. But don't tell that to the Montana State University-Northern Lights. The No. 13 Lights played as well as a team can play on defense in their nationally-ranked showdown with the No. 4 Carroll College Fighting Saints Saturday at Blue Pony Stadium, and still, the Lights found themselves on the losing end of a heartbreaking 10-3 final score. Defense and special teams had the most to do with Saturday's outcome. Carroll's vaunted defense held true to form, holding an opponent to a lone field goal for the third straight week, and although MSU-N had its moments early in the game, the Saints held the Lights to 197 yards of total offense, and just two first downs in the entire second half. Punting was crucial as well, as the Lights punted 13 times, while MSU-N's defense, which held the Saints to 240 yards of offense, forced Carroll punter Zach Thiry to attempt 11 punts. "From an offensive standpoint, it was a disappointing game," MSU-N head coach Mark Samson said. "I mean, our defense played so well and so hard, and so did Carroll's. They are a great defense and a lot of what happened to us on offense was because of them. But for the second week in a row, we made some really basic and fundamental mistakes on offense that really hurt us, and it's something that we have to get cleared up. "And it's a little disappointing because for all that happened in the game," he added. "We still had an opportunity to win the game at the end, and for the second week in a row, we just couldn't get it done. But still, Carroll has a great team, and their defense is the best we will see all year, there is no doubt about that. And we know that. It's just tough to come close like that and not get it done." Even with a difficult day offensively, especially for true freshman quarterback Garren Hammons, who was making his first career start for MSU-N, the Lights had their chances. Northern played a sound first half of football, leading 3-0 at halftime. In the first 30 minutes, the Lights did to Carroll what the Saints did to MSU-N in the second half. Carroll picked up just three first downs, and early on, Northern's offense moved the ball deep into Saints' territory. Luke McKinley was major factor in the first half on both sides of the ball. McKinley appeared to put MSU-N on the board eight minutes into the game when he intercepted Carroll starter John Barnett and raced 24 yards to the end zone untouched. But the play was called back because of a roughing the passer penalty. That play came shortly after McKinley had missed a long field goal try. But just two minutes after the called-back interception, MSU-N recovered a Barnett fumble, and the Lights promptly went down and put three points on the board as McKinley made good on a 26-yard try late in the first quarter. From there, both defenses played to a stalemate until halftime. "I thought early on, we did some good things offensively," Samson said. "It seemed like we were able to move the ball pretty well in the first quarter. But we knew we were going to have trouble scoring touchdowns, and in the second half, they just shut us down completely." And it was a second half that belonged to the Saints. Carroll's defense stifled MSU-N for the next 30 minutes, and although there was no quit in the Lights' defensive unit, the Saints did just enough to overcome the 3-0 deficit. "I am just really proud of our guys today," Carroll head coach Mike Van Diest said. "I mean, our defense just played their hearts out. The guys have been here before. Those are the types of ball games we are going to be in against Northern. They have a great defense. But in the second half, I thought we were very good." In the second half, with Carroll's defense preventing MSU-N from doing anything, a few small breaks turned out to be the difference. The Saints got one break midway through the third quarter when MSU-N punter Donny Saisbury was pinned in his own end zone, and the ensuing kick left Carroll with its only short field of the day. Two plays later, the Saints were on the board for the first time when Barnett hit Travis Browne on a 25-yard touchdown play that wound up being the game-winning score. Carroll tacked on three more points in the fourth quarter behind the stellar play of backup quarterback and former Havre High star Gary Wagner. Wagner came on in relief of Barnett in the final period and late in the game, he led the Saints to a 37-yard Thiry field goal. "John is our starting quarterback, but we got Gary some more playing time last week and we gave him some playing time this week," Van Diest said. "And Gary did a great job moving the offense." Said Wagner: "John has been a great mentor to me and I support him all the way. But I was excited to get my chance today. To be out on the field at Blue Pony Stadium again and to help our team put this game away against a great Northern team, it just feels really good." As well as Carroll controlled the second half on both sides of the ball, Northern still found itself with its own opportunities to walk out of Blue Pony Stadium with a second straight win over the Saints. The Lights got a break early in the fourth quarter when Thiry couldn't handle a snap and put his knee down, giving MSU-N the ball at the Carroll 31-yard-line. But Northern went threeand- out on that possession. Then, after the Thiry field goal put the Saints ahead 10-3, Sean Herrin fumbled with 3:43 left in the game, but again, the Lights could do nothing with the ball. MSU-N also had one last gasp with 20 seconds left in the game, but that drive went for not as well. "There were a lot of three-andouts," Samson said. "I just don't think I've ever seen that many punts between two football teams before. Both defenses played great all day. But offensively, it was a struggle. And we definitely have some work to do to get that cleaned up, and I really believe we will." There weren't many highlights on offense, but MSU-N did gain 113 yards on the ground. Hammons led the way with 52 yards on 19 carries, while Herrin had 51 yards for the Saints. Hammons struggled throwing the ball, going 7-for-27 for 84 yards and one interception. Barnett had his difficulties as well, completing just 13-of-27 passes with an interception and a touchdown. Defensively, Phil Lenoue led all tacklers with 15 solo tackles, and he added 1.5 sacks. MSU-N got a huge effort from Josh Glahn, Garrett Glasrud and Marc McBryan. The win over the Lights avenges last year's 10-3 loss in Havre. It also puts Carroll in a tie with UM-Western for first place in the Frontier standings at 3-0. The Saints and Bulldogs hook up on Saturday in Helena. "This was a big game for us," Van Diest said. "And it's a big win. It always is when you play Northern at home. They are just a great football team, so we feel really good about this win. "But now, with how Western is doing," he added. "The game at home against them becomes our biggest game of the season. That's the way it is in this league right now." Meanwhile, the loss to the Saints puts MSU-N (2-2, 1-2) in a two-game home losing streak heading into Saturday's game with Rocky Mountain College in Billings. The Lights didn't lose a game at home all last season. "I still believe that we can be in this playoff hunt," Samson said. "We have to get some things cleared up, and we're disappointed right now being 1-2 in the conference. But I guarantee this team will work hard to get things going again. We just have to take it one game at a time, and we have to correct some things on offense. But I think we still have a great chance to accomplish what we want to this season." MSU-N will visit RMC on Saturday at 1 p.m. in Billings. The Bears (2-2, 1-2) are coming off an upset win at Easter Oregon University in LaGrande, Ore., on Saturday.