The two hottest teams in the Frontier Conference will go head-to-head on Saturday.
And the way things were going when Montana State University-Northern and Eastern Oregon met last month in LaGrande, Ore., it seemed unlikely that either team would be on a roll on Oct. 30.
A lot has changed since EOU pulled off a come-from-behind 50-46 win over the Lights last month. That game propelled the Mountaineers to a four-game winning streak and allowed them to recover from an 0-3 start. The Lights went on to lose two more in a row after that game. But now, entering Saturday’s tilt, both teams are playing their best football of the season and if the first meeting was exciting, Saturday’s bash at Blue Pony Stadium might top that.
EOU has some of the most explosive offensive weapons in the NAIA. And while third-year quarterback Chris Ware gets a lot of attention and rightfully so, it’s junior running back Kevin Sampson who’s stealing the show this season. Samson is first in the Frontier and fifth in the NAIA in rushing at 123 yards per game. He’s also first in the Frontier and second in the NAIA in all-purpose yardage, having racked up 330 yards receiving and almost 500 yards on returns this year. So, as has been the case during EOU’s last five games, it will be pick your poison for the Lights.
Northern’s offense hasn’t exactly been chopped liver during their recent winning streak. The Lights are getting much more consistent play from quarterback Derek Lear, who was named the Frontier’s Offensive Player of the Week on Monday. The Lights’ Matt Stuart is also second in the Frontier in receiving, and Northern’s offense seems to be clicking like it was when the Lights totaled almost 600 yards at EOU.
But it’s the MSU-N defense which will have a big impact on Saturday’s showdown.
After getting three sacks in last week’s upset of Montana Tech, Northern’s Travis Hjort is leading the NAIA in sacks with 7.5. The Lights are equally as good against the run and pass, and with EOU’s offense so dynamic and balanced, the MSU-N defense may be the biggest factor on who stays hot this weekend in Havre.
Offense has been the name of the game the last few weeks in the Frontier, but No. 2 Carroll College is making things look to easy. The Saints ran their current Frontier winning streak to 39 games by scoring 61 points at home against EOU last weekend. Carroll had 703 yards of total offense, while senior quarterback and former Havre Blue Pony Gary Wagner was almost perfect throwing the football.
If the Saints get through Saturday’s game against winless UM-Western they will have now gone an amazing 48 straight months without losing a Frontier Conference game.
Western, however, seems to always make things tough on Carroll. The Bulldogs played Carroll very hard in a 28-2 loss to the Saints last month at home. And last season, they came within seven total points of beating Carroll twice.
Despite their 0-8 record, Western is not a bad football team statistically. The Bulldogs rank near the middle of the Frontier pack in most defensive and offensive categories. Western also has the league leader in total tackles in linebacker Curtis Quigley and the league’s top receiver in Colton Woods.
While Northern and Eastern are riding high heading into their showdown, the same can’t be said for Montana Tech and Rocky Mountain College. The two teams meet on Saturday in Billings, and both teams have suffered major setbacks.
Tech has seen its playoff hopes completely dashed with losses at EOU two weeks ago, and a stunning 21-14 loss at home to Northern last Saturday. RMC has also went backwards, and it’s likely the two games where the Bears almost knocked off Carroll to its toll on them. RMC lost to EOU two weeks ago and gave up almost 700 yards in offense, and now both teams limp into Saturday’s game with not much left to play for.