George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor firstname.lastname@example.org
Three games. Three games are all that stand between Frontier Conference football teams, a conference title, and the NAIA playoffs. And as the race starts to reach the final stretch, things are starting to look eerily familiar in certain ways. The No. 1 Carroll College Fighting Saints (7-0, 8-0) have won eight straight Frontier championships, and number nine is getting more secure. While the Saints were beating up on struggling Rocky Mountain College (1-6, 2-6) last Saturday in Billings, No. 19 Montana State University-Northern was getting upset by Eastern Oregon University in LaGrande, Ore. The Lights' (5-2, 5-2) 42-14 loss to EOU put them two full games behind Carroll in the conference standings heading into Saturday's big showdown between the Saints and Lights in Helena. But as the Saints close in on another Frontier title, they are doing so in one of their most difficult seasons injury-wise in a long, long time. Carroll has been without injured starting quarterback Gary Wagner since the second quarter of its second game of the season. Then the Saints lost starting running back Sean Herrin for the year a week later. And last Saturday in Billings, the Frontier's leading rusher, Gabe Le went out with a knee injury on the first play from scrimmage. Le had been on a tear the last four weeks and was averaging 119 yards per game going into the game with RMC. The prognosis for Le didn't look good, and to make matters worse, the Saints also lost starting linebacker Branden Day and return specialist Christian Prosperie in the RMC game. Both players left early and didn't return. But Carroll's fellow conference members won't feel too sorry for the Saints. Through all of their injuries, backups have filled in nicely. Quarterbacks Dane Broadhead and Matt Ritter have both played well at times, and Broadhead earned offensive player of the week honors this past week. And against the Bears, sophomore running back Jeff Deal came off the bench to rush for 132 yards and two scores. Saturday's game in Helena is the sixth time in the last seven meetings that Carroll and Northern have both been nationally ranked when playing each other. Carroll has won five of those meetings, but no margin of victory has been wider than 13 points. The Saints beat the Lights 17-10 last month in Havre, but in its last three trips to Helena, MSU-N has played extremely well and has come dangerously close to knocking off Carroll in Nelson Stadium. The Lights are up against the wall when it comes to the league title. With three games left in the regular season, Northern needs a win in Helena, and help from the rest of the league to catch the Saints. But the Lights are still in position to reach the playoffs, and they are the only Frontier team that can join Carroll in the field of 16 next month. A win in Helena would go a long way towards doing that. Things didn't go well for MSU-N last Saturday in LaGrande. It was Northern's second loss to EOU on the road in its last three trips to Oregon. And it was the second time that a loss to the Mounties directly affected Northern's conference title hopes. However, the Lights did get a pair of stellar performances on defense. Marc McBryan picked off his third pass in his last two games, tying teammate Khalin Anderson for the league lead in picks with four. Junior linebacker Stetson Koffman racked up 18 tackles against EOU, and he has still yet to have a game in which he didn't reach double figures in tackles. Koffman and Western linebacker Chad Schira are in quite a battle statistically. Heading into this week's games, Schira has 93 total tackles while Koffman has 91. EOU (3-4, 3-4) matched last year's win total with its victory over Northern in LaGrande. The Mountaineers have been a completely different team at home this season. They are 3-1 in conference games at Community Stadium, and they averaging 38 points and 450 total yards of offense in home games. They have beaten Montana Tech, RMC and MSU-N by an average margin of 24 points and they get UM-Western, a team struggling on defense, this Saturday in Oregon. Montana Tech (3-4, 3-5) found its running game last Saturday in a seven- point win over Western. Sophomore Skylar Knuchel rushed for 60 yards and sophomore quarterback Matt Komac added another 60 yards in the 24-17 win. Tech lost starting running back Drew Savage to injury last month and the Orediggers had been struggling on the ground. But Knuchel has had back-toback solid games, and as a result, the Orediggers are starting to get back to their preferred ball control offense. In that same game, Western (2-5, 2-6) freshman quarterback Micah Mamiya threw for 300 yards, his fifth 300-yard game since taking over the starting duties full time. However, after starting the season 0-3, then winning two straight to get to 2-3, the Bulldogs have slumped again, losing three straight games.