It’s Act Two time in the Frontier Conference.
Midway through the football season, one thing is clear, this isn’t the same old Frontier fans have grown to know in the past decade. In other words, the Carroll College Fighting Saints, at the very least don’t have the Frontier title locked up in October.
But just when it seems teams like Eastern Oregon, Rocky Mountain College and MSU-Northern are stepping up to challenge for the Frontier championship, it is still the saints who are in prime position to make a run at yet another Frontier crown.
It’s true, Carroll has a rare league loss on its ledger, but the Saints appear to be hitting their stride at the right time. The Saints have won four straight since falling to EOU in week two, and that includes wins over MSU-Northern two weeks ago, and a dismantling of future Frontier member Dickinson State last week in Dickinson, N.D.
And while some fans may not see Carroll as the same powerhouse as in past seasons, the Saints are still making a living on the things that have helped bring them to prominence. Carroll has a dominant run game, led by Chance Demarias, and while Demarias has been rumored to have been slowed by a hamstring injury in recent weeks, Carroll’s dominant offensive line has been more than enough to help break in freshman Dustin Rinker. Rinker has sparkled in recent weeks, and has already gained 324 yards on just 39 carries this season.
While Carroll appears to be hitting stride, EOU has started to swoon some. The Mountaineers roared out of the gates with a 4-0 start, but since that time, they have been outscored by a combined 97-51 in back-to-back losses to Rocky and Southern Oregon. The home loss to Rocky two weeks ago was shocking enough, but the Mounties’ loss at un-ranked rival SOU last weekend has certainly signaled alarm bells in LaGrande.
Defense has always been EOU’s achilles heel, but for most of this season, the Mounties have been solid on that side of the ball. Offense and scoring has never been a problem at EOU, but in the last two weeks, and even dating back to a close home win over UM-Western three weeks ago, the Mounties have struggled more in the red zone, the Mounties have been beat in time of possession in three straight games and they have struggled to convert on third downs. EOU’s defense has also slipped some. In their last three outings, the Mounties are allowing almost 500 yards of total offense per.
So the two teams tied atop the Frontier heading into the second half of the season appear to be heading in two different directions.
•Speaking of the second half of the season, the start is critical for the four teams separated by just one game.
Carroll and EOU are 4-1 in league play, while Northern and Rocky are 3-2. This week’s nationally-ranked showdown pits No. 3 Carroll hosting No. 21 RMC in Helena on Saturday. Rocky had dreams of an upset when the two teams met in Billings in September but the Saints won going away, 35-16. A loss to Carroll this Saturday would likely end the Bears’ chances of reaching the NAIA playoffs, unless three losses would somehow become enough to earn the league title at the end of the season. But that’s a very unlikely scenario.
And three losses would also likely keep EOU out of the playoffs despite its 4-0 start. The Mounties have dropped all the way to No. 23 in the latest NAIA Poll, and they’re hoping a home game against 1-5 Montana Tech is just what they need to stop the current losing skid.
Northern, which is tied with the Bears for second gets its second half underway with a road trip to Western this Saturday. The Lights are coming off a tough loss at Carroll two weeks ago and a bye this week. Western played at FCS and future Big Sky member North Dakota last weekend, and the play-up, money game may have hurt the Bulldogs as both starting quarterback Zach McRae and starting wideout Casey Lamping were injured in the loss to the Fighting Sioux.
Still, MSU-N head coach Mark Samson sees his team’s bye as a double-edged sword, and he knows Western will be well-prepared for the Lights in Dillon.
“The bye was good in that we had some guys banged up, and they got a chance to rest up, to heal up. That’s always good. And it gave us all a chance to step back and just take a breath,” Samson said. “But I also feel like you would rather not have a bye after coming off a loss, like we did after the Carroll game. After a loss, I think the guys would rather get right back at it. And it’s also tough when the team you’re playing played the week before and you didn’t.
“But we used the bye as a positive and we had really good practices when we came back,” he added. “I just know our guys want to play a game really badly. Two weeks is a long time to not play a game in the middle of the season. So our kids are fired up and ready to go.”
•During the bye week, the Lights not only rested, but they still got work in, including a Scout Team Bowl last week.
Northern has some exciting young talent, including freshman quarterbacks J.R. Finai and Trent Godsey, as well as local wide receivers Corderro Strickland from Havre High and Ceddy Pogue from Chester/J-I. Running back Zach McKinley from Great Falls has also been impressive as a true freshman, as has defenders like Butch Hyder, Hunter Chandler and Marc Evans.
“The Scout Bowl was a lot of fun,” Samson said. “We had a lot of young kids go in and play really well in that and the team enjoyed it. I think it showed we have really built a good foundation with the younger players we have and we are really working towards having some good depth now and in the future. We had a lot of kids making plays on that day, so it was a lot of fun.”