By Alan Sorensen
The Montana State University-Northern Lights played a strong first half against the highly regarded Carroll College Fighting Saints Friday at Blue Pony Stadium, but fell in the end 39 to 12.
If not for a pass interception run back for a Carroll touchdown with 7:46 to go in the half and a run up the middle with 28 ticks left, Northern could have gone into half time up 12 to 7.
"We had our moments" Head Coach Walt Currie said. "We stayed in the football game, pretty much right up to the end, and then they got a couple of big plays on us that hurt, but right up into the last quarter we were pretty much in the football game."
Carroll drew first blood after the Lights first drive stalled at their own 25 and they punted to the Saints 46. Carroll mounted a short drive that stalled out at Northern's 14. KG grad Rhett Crites, who handles punting and kicking duties for the Saints, was just wide left with a 30-yard field goal attempt.
Starting from its own 20, Northern garnered one first down and was forced to punt after a draw for one yard, incomplete pass and a quarterback sack for minus seven yards.
Carroll moved down the field in small chunks before a quarterback sneak from the 2-yard line. Crites' point-after kick at the 7:16 mark in the first quarter gave the Saints the lead 7-0.
Northern again managed just one first down and had to punt after an Andy Smith reception for nine yards left the Lights at fourth and one.
Carroll looked to mount another scoring threat, but an illegal block and a pass off the finger tips of a wide-open receiver left Carroll with a fourth and 10. Mark Nay broke through the line to block the punt and Northern took over at Carroll's 5-yard line.
Travis Crawford carried up the middle twice, the first time for two yards and the second for the score. The PAT was blocked and Northern was one point back, 7-6, with 1:31 to go in the quarter.
Northern then held Carroll and got the ball back on their own 30 following the punt. Northern quarterback Brandon Kerkes threw a pass for a two-yard loss and then connected with Andy Smith for a 29-yard gain to the Lights 49. A roughing the passer called gave Northern the ball at Carroll's 36. Northern picked up enough for another first down on a 15-yard pass to Tanner Woodward that was stripped and recovered by Carroll at its own 28.
Northern held again, and Carroll was forced to punt on a fourth and four from its own 41 with 9:30 to go in the half.
Northern gained two yards on the ground and then four more on a pass to Crawford before the Carroll corner stepped in front of the Northern receiver on the next play and scampered untouched into the end zone to give the Saints a 14 to 6 lead.
Northern responded on its next possession after Woodward returned the kickoff from his own one yard line to Carroll's 26. The Lights made good on the series with positive gains that took the ball to the Saints' eight yard line. Northern converted a fourth-and-three play and Kerkes found Smith in the corner of the end zone for Northern's second TD. The try for two failed when the pass was caught at the goal line and the receiver was pushed back by Carroll defenders with 4:36 to go in the quarter.
It took Carroll more than four minutes to score again, and the clock ran out on Northern with the ball at its own 44.
The second half was a defensive struggle with Northern never giving up but never getting into the end zone again, either.
Carroll scored three more times, twice on long runs of 72 and 63 yards to seal the win.
Currie said he was particularly proud of his defense and singled out sophomore strong safety Troy Gunlock for his efforts.
"Troy Gunlock I thought had a real good game," Currie said. "He had 13 solo tackles, one for a loss, and he blocked two PATs."
Offensively, the Lights showed improvement in the giveaway-takeaway department.
"We did cut down on the turnovers a lot," Currie said. "The only one that hurt us was the one that they ran back for a touchdown."
Northern gained a total of 172 yards on 59 plays compared to Carroll's 495 yards on 69 plays. The Saints had twice as many first downs 22 to 11 for Northern and held the ball nearly 18 minutes longer 41:13 to 23:43.
Northern finishes out its second year of Frontier Conference action Saturday against Rocky Mountain College in Billings.
"We expect another team about the caliber of Carroll, although they've been beaten by Carroll and Tech and are coming off a loss to Southern Utah," Currie said "Hopefully, we can catch them while they're a little down. I'm sure they'd like to finish their season on a high note with a win, and we'd like to finish ours that way, too. It should be a pretty good football game."
Kickoff is slated for 1 p.m.
"We're down to our last game, and we'd like to finish with a good showing," Currie said. "Hopefully, on the road we can rebound and come back hard this last week."
Northern enters this last weekend of action with a 2-5 league record and 2-7 overall mark. Carroll moved to 5-2 in league play and 7-3 overall with Saturday's win.