The last time the Montana State University-Northern Lights played a regular season home game, they were ending the 2011 season with a difficult, but exciting game against the Carroll College Fighting Saints.
Now, just 10 months later the Lights and Saints are set to do it again, this time opening the 2012 Frontier Conference season tonight in Havre. The Lights take on the No. 2 Saints tonight at 6 inside Blue Pony Stadium, in what has been billed as one of the biggest season-openers in Frontier Conference history.
And there are several reasons tonight’s clash is so big.
Carroll and Northern were picked to finish 1-2 in the league this season, so the winner of tonight’s game will certainly have a leg up on the three-month race to the Frontier championship. The Lights and Saints are two of the most talented teams in the league as well, with both teams possessing great quarterbacks and running backs among others.
And then there’s the fact that it’s a rivalry game. These two teams simply don’t have a lot of love lost for each other and they’ve both been preparing for this night since the schedule was released last spring.
“We are definitely excited,” Northern senior running back Stephen Silva said. “Everybody is pumped up for this game, and we just can’t wait for that kickoff on Friday.”
And though both teams have high expectations for tonight, they also have big aspirations for the entire season. Northern has built a lot of momentum over the last two years and many feel the Lights are a legitimate threat to end Carroll’s 12-year stranglehold on the Frontier Conference championship. Meanwhile, the Saints always expect to win the league crown and more so, play for an NAIA national championship. And even though Carroll is breaking in a new quarterback and a new offensive line, and the Saints endured some turmoil when legendary head coach Mike Van Diest almost retired two weeks ago, the Saints’ expectations are no different for themselves this year than they are in any other season.
“This is a big game, but it’s always big when we play Carroll,” Northern head coach Mark Samson, who’s coached one of only two teams to beat the Saints in a conference game since 2006 said. “But we also can’t look at this as a game that will make or break our season, and I’m certain Carroll feels the same way. It’s August. This is the first game of a long season and there’s a lot of football left after Friday night.
“It’s a big game, no question,” he continued. “But every conference game is big. That’s the nature of college football. This one just has a little more hype around it because it’s a night game and it’s the season-opener for both teams. So it is exciting. It’s exciting for our players and our fans, and it certainly will be a special night.”
Special might not be the right word to describe what could happen inside Blue Pony Stadium tonight. Instead, explosive might be a better one.
The Lights return eight starters on an offense which led the Frontier in total offense and passing and was second in the league in rushing a season ago. Those starters include junior quarterback Derek Lear, Silva, a host of talented receivers, tight end Brian Torgerson and starting preseason all-american guard Brock Hyder. The Lights are breaking in four new starters on the o-line, but they’ve looked really good in fall camp, so there’s no reason why MSU-N’s offense shouldn’t pick up major steam again this season.
And then there’s Carroll’s running game.
The Saints return the reigning NAIA Offensive MVP in senior Chance Demarais, who rushed for nearly 2,000 yards last season. Demarais backed up by sophomore Dustin Rinker, who in Carroll’s 42-24 win over the Lights last November in Havre, ran for over 200 yards in Demarias’ absence. Like Northern, Carroll is breaking in a slew of new starters on the line, but there is literally no chance the Saints’ rushing attack will slow down this fall. Last year, Carroll averaged a whopping 258 yards per game on the ground.
The Saints are also starting a new quarterback in junior Dakota Stonehouse, who takes over for graduated senior Dane Broadhead. Stonehouse spent the last three seasons mentoring under former Havre great Gary Wagner and Broadhead, all the while seeing action at wide receiver and as a wildcat quarterback. So while he’s never started a college football game, he’s certainly ready, and like Lear, is considered a dual-threat quarterback with great speed and tremendous athletic ability.
“Carroll is going to be Carroll offensively,” Samson said. “They (Saints) are going to run, run and run some more with the best running back in the country and a great offensive line. We fully understand how difficult they are to handle when they are running down hill at you, and it’s something our defense has been working hard to get ready for. We just have to make sure we come out ready to go and fly to the ball and tackle well, because they are so solid offensively, that they are going to make you pay for any mistakes you make.”
Like in the great Northern/Carroll matchups of the past, defense will be the wildcard factor in tonight’s game.
The Lights and Saints both lost key players off of very good defenses last season. Carroll had the No. 1-ranked scoring defense in the nation in 2011, allowing just over 12 points per game, and the Saints do return some horses, including preseason all-american linebacker Joe Dunning, and two-time all-american safety Brian Strobel. Senior defensive end Rhakeem Harris and junior tackle Dakota Amy anchor the line, while junior cornerback Mike Siegersma picked off a league-best six passes a year ago.
“They (Saints) lost some very good players on defense last year,” Samson said. “But, every year, they have more good players step in and fill those roles. So I don’t expect anything has changed down there. They are going to come in here with a very good defense and they are going to want to get after us. The key for us is playing smart football offensively. We have some good skill players, we have great leadership on our offense and we feel pretty good about where we’re at right now. But again, you have to play smart, fundamental football against Carroll, because they will make you pay for any mistake you make.”
Meanwhile, the Lights’ defense is also replacing great players from a year ago in Will Andrews and Landry See, but Northern’s starting unit has gelled nicely in fall camp. The Lights do have veteran leadership in the likes of corner Tanner Varner, safety Matt Reyant, linebackers Jordan Van Voast and Jared Rohrback and nose tackle Mike Carbone, and they’ll need to stay poised tonight against a vaunted Saints’ rushing attack.
So with two great offenses, stout defenses and two rosters loaded with talent, tonight’s game should be an all out battle. Another x-factor in tonight’s outcome will be emotion. Emotions always run high when Carroll comes to Havre, a place the Saints have won five straight times, and there’s no doubt, a season-opening night game will have those emotions ramped up extra-high on both sides of the ball. There’s also the fact that the winner of tonight’s game will have the early lead in the Frontier, and bragging rights, at least until the two teams hook up again in October in Helena.
“It’s going to be a special night,” Samson said. “We have a tremendous amount of respect for Carroll. What they’ve developed and built down there is nothing short of amazing. They’ve been as consistent as any college football program in the country over the years, and the way they do it, just year-after-year is truly amazing.
“So we expect them to come in here and be very good,” he added. “We expect it to be business as usual for them this season. We have a lot of confidence in our team too, and we feel really good about what we’ve done in pre-fall and even going back to last spring. We are in a position to have a very good season and achcieve a lot this year. But this game is going to be a huge challenge for us, but it’s also a challenge our guys are excited about and are ready for.
“Playing Carroll right out of the gate, we couldn’t ask for a better way to start out our year,” Silva added. “We get to take on our rival right away, and hopefully get to start our season with a big win.”
Tonight’s Frontier Conference showdown between the Lights and Saints kicks off at 6 inside Blue Pony Stadium. The Lights have a bye next week, while Carroll travels to Big Sky Conference powerhouse Portland State.
It's time to kick off
MSU-Northern Lights vs No. 2 Carroll College Fighting Saints
Tonight at 6 p.m.
at Blue Pony Stadium
Radio: 92.5 KPQX FM
Internet: www.havredailynews.com or www.msun.edu/athletics
For more coverage, see the Game Day Issue inside today's Havre Daily News.