George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor email@example.com
Going into Saturday's huge Frontier Conference showdown in Helena, the Carroll College Fighting Saints and Montana State University-Northern Lights, have two things in common. First, both teams are looking at Saturday's game as an opportunity to take another step in securing an NAIA playoff berth. But more importantly, neither team will be dwelling on MSUN's stunning 42-14 upset loss at Eastern Oregon when the No. 1 Saints (8-0) and No. 19 Lights (5-2) hook up at Nelson Stadium at 1 p.m. "They (Lights) were playing a team with a different offense and defense from what we do," Carroll head coach Mike Van Diest said. "We didn't concern ourselves with what happened to Northern down there when preparing for them this week. We know they are a very good football team, they play hard and they are as talented a team as we have faced all year. That's the team that we've been preparing to play this week." And the team that the Saints are preparing to play is a Northern team that has hopefully put the recent past behind. The Lights stumbled mightily in LaGrande in all three phases, but Lights head coach Mark Samson says that his team seems to not only understand what happened last Saturday, but has found away to get past it. "It's been a great week of practice," Samson said. "The kids have responded really well to all of this. We went to work on Monday, something we usually don't do, and practice has just been good all week. "It's one of those things, the wheels fell off down there," he added. "It happens to the best of football teams. But the sign of a good football team is being able to get back up again, and so far our kids have done that. Hopefully it translates into how we play on Saturday." And the Lights will need to play well in Helena. There's certainly plenty at stake as there always is in the Carroll/Northern rivalry. Carroll already has a 17-10 win over Northern in its pocket, and the Saints can lock up a record ninth straight Frontier title and the league's automatic bid to the playoffs with a win Saturday. Meanwhile, the Lights are fighting for their playoff lives. With two losses, the Lights can ill afford another. Northern has looked like one of the top 16 teams in the NAIA all season, and Saturday's game, while not set in stone, could make or break MSU-N's playoff chances. "I feel good going into this game," Samson said. "Our attitude and enthusiasm is good right now. It always is during the week of a Carroll game, but this team loves to play on the road, we've played well in Helena in the past, and these guys really relish the chance to go down there and knock them (Saints) off." In order for Northern to be successful Saturday, they'll have to do a couple of key things. The Lights will have to get back to playing the kind of defense that had them statistically in the top 10 in the NAIA in almost every defensive category prior to last week's game against the Mountaineers. They'll also have to avoid turnovers and score in the redzone. In their loss to the Saints last month in Havre, MSU-N had three first-half turnovers, including two inside Carroll's 20-yard-line. The Saints had their own turnover problems against MSU-N last time out. But freshman quarterbacks Dane Broadhead and Matt Ritter have been improving every week since the MSUN game, and Carroll's rushing attack is tops in the Frontier again this season. Although the Saints will likely be without the league's leading rusher in Gabe Le, who suffered a knee injury at Rocky Mountain College last week, Carroll will still look to keep the ball on the ground and control the time of possession on Saturday, something the Saints have been very good at this season. "We've gotten better on offense, but we're not there yet," Van Diest said. "Both our quarterbacks have had their good moments and they've had their share of struggles, but they have learned all season, and for true freshmen, I'm pleased with their progress. "We're also the healthiest we've been in four weeks," he added,. "We've had some depth issues and a lot of injuries, but we're getting closer to full strength at just the right time." Said Samson: At this point in the season it's pretty darn easy to prepare for each other. We know what they do in a basic sense and they know what we do. It's so much about execution at this point. We've added a few wrinkles and so have they, but those are things you adjust during the game. For us, it really comes down to the fact that we have to block and tackle better than we did last week." Indeed, both teams are eerily familiar with one another. Personnel, schemes and tendencies. That's what happens when two rivals play as many close games as Carroll and Northern have played against each other over the last three seasons. And both coaches know that it's the little things that will matter most on Saturday. "We have a tremendous amount of respect for their football team," Van Diest said. "They have as good a defense as we'll see all year, not just in the conference, but in the playoffs too. Stetson Koffman is one of the best linebackers in the country and Jared Weigel and Will Andrews might be the best defensive end tandem I've ever seen in this league. They're that good. "So we know what we're up against," he added. "For us, this game will come down to field position, punting, defense, and taking care of the football. I like our defense, they're getting better every week, so if we can execute and take care of the football, I feel good about our chances." And Carroll's defense, like Northern's will be a factor. Koffman leads the Frontier in tackles, Weigel and Andrews are top three in sacks, while Carroll's Rick Young leads the league in sacks with eight. Northern's Khalin Anderson and Marc McBryan lead the league in interceptions with four each, and Ted Wells is right behind them, as is Carroll linebacker Owen Koeppen with three picks. Neither team is particularly free with giving up points, especially inside its 20-yard-line, so offense and field position will be at a premium. The Lights will need quarterback Nick Petrino to make plays, as well as get a solid day from their offensive line and running back Justin More, who's averaging 107 yards per game. Moe ran for 89 yards against the Saints last month. Carroll will also have to find a way to get its running game going even if Le doesn't play. The Lights are strong against the run, and Andrews and Weigel, as well as Landry See and Koffman will put pressure on Carroll's freshmen quarterbacks, just as they did last month in Havre. In that game, Northern got five sacks in the first half. Northern also leads the conference and is fourth in the NAIA in turnover margin, so Saturday's game will likely come down to a final possession and who takes better care of the football. "This is a big game for both teams," Samson said. "We have to obviously play much better than we did in the second half the last time we played them. "There's a lot at stake for both teams and our players are well aware of that," he added. "We have a great respect for what Carroll has done, their tradition, and all that they've achieved. They are where everyone else is trying to get to right now, including us. But we feel comfortable playing down there, we always have. So we're going to go down there, play hard, try to play our best game of the season and see what happens." Saturday's game between the Lights and Saints will kick off at 1 p.m. in Helena. The game at Carroll is MSU-N's final road game of the season. Quick Hits: Carroll's special teams have been crucial to its success this season. Zach Thiry is an all-american punter and wide receiver Travis Browne leads the league in punt returns. Northern hopes to counter with freshman punter Kyle Finneman, who is second in the conference in punting. Saturday's game will likely have as many as 10 all-conference and several all-american defensive players on the field for both teams. Statistically, no one in the Frontier and few in the NAIA are as good as Carroll and Northern on the defensive side of the ball. The game in Helena is the sixth time in the last seven between the two schools that both teams have been ranked nationally, and the fourth time that Carroll is ranked No. 1 when taking on an MSU-N team. Carroll is also riding a 23-game winning streak dating back to the 2006 season, and the Lights have never won at Nelson Stadium.