It’s getting colder, it’s getting darker and yes, some snow has even fallen around the state of Montana. Point of fact, it’s football weather finally, and the opening of the 2012 Frontier Conference season seems like a long, long time ago.
Never-the-less, the league has already reached the halfway point in the season, and what a strange trip it’s been so far.
First, there is the surprise team of the first half and that has to be Montana Tech, although fans in Butte may disagree. They may have know Tech was going to be this good all along.
However, the Orediggers were picked to finish sixth in the Frontier this season, yet they sit 4-1 in league play and tied atop the Frontier standings. Tech has been the team which knows how to win the close ones this season, as evidenced by last week’s three-point, double overtime win over Southern Oregon. And if not for a season-opening 26-24 loss to Eastern Oregon, the Digger’s would be unbeaten. Yet, winning four in a row has given Tech a No. 13 national ranking and the inside track to the Frontier championship.
The Diggers’ control their own destiny the rest of the way because they own the tiebreaker over Carroll College. Tech isn’t just the surprise team of the first half of the season, it also has the NAIA win of the year. The Diggers’ handed Carroll only its third league loss in the last six seasons when they thumped the Saints 37-20 last month in Butte. And because Tech and Carroll don’t play each other again, the Diggers can win the league’s automatic bid if they finished tied with the Saints. But, things will be tough for Tech in the second half. The Orediggers have a bye week before finishing up with a stretch that includes trips to EOU and SOU, as well as tough home games against rivals Montana State University-Northern and UM-Western.
The Saints and Northern have also been somewhat surprise teams this season. Carroll’s schedule may have come back to bite the Saints a bit as they played their three straight on the road, including losses at Big Sky Conference member Portland State and at Tech. And those followed a physically taxing season-opening win in Havre. But since its loss to Tech, Carroll has gotten healthier and has reeled off three straight wins to come in at 4-1 in the Frontier at the halfway point.
Meanwhile, the Lights started the season as perhaps the most disappointing team. Northern opened the year 0-3 and averaged just 13 points per game in doing so. Picked to finish second in the Frontier, the start, which included losses at EOU and Dickinson State by a combined four points was tough to swallow. But now the Lights have rebounded, scoring 91 points in back-to-back wins. The Lights offense is clicking on all cylinders right now and they could just be the surprise team of the second half.
The biggest disappointment in the first half has to go to Rocky Mountain College, only because the Bears started out 3-0 and rose to No. 16 in the NAIA Coaches Poll. But since that time, the Bears have swooned, losing three straight, and their offense has dipped to averaging just 13.3 points per contest in that stretch. The Bears could rebound in the second half as they host Carroll and Northern at home, but it might be too little too late for a team which looked playoff bound three weeks ago.
Players of the Half
With all of the amazing numbers being put up in the league this season, the race for Frontier Offensive MVP is certainly a tight one. But in the first half of the season, the nod has to go to Southern Oregon quarterback Austin Dodge. Dodge has already thrown for 1,392 yards and 12 touchdowns this season, is averaging an NAIA best 348 yards per outing and is completing a stellar 65 percent of his passes.
Dodge does have competition, especially from the quarterbacks. Tech’s Nick Baker is having an outstanding first season as a starter, while Northern’s Derek Lear is starting to come on strong. As expected, Tech sophomore Pat Hansen is having another big season, averaging 104 yards to go with 12 touchdowns, while reigning NAIA Player of the Year Chance Demarais is now getting healthy and leads the Frontier in rushing at 108 yards per contest.
The Defensive Player of the Year is more clear cut at the halfway point as EOU’s Howard McDonald has been a force to be reckoned with. McDonald opened the season by recording single-game tackles totals of 23 and 25, respectively. He’s already racked up 71 total tackles on the season to go along with 3.5 sacks, and he’s scored two touchdowns as an extra fullback on offense. Tech linebacker Mike Touzinsky, Carroll linebacker Sean Blomquist and Rocky linebacker Josh Johnson also deserve to be in the discussion for the award at the midway point.
And while McDonald might be running away with the defensive award, second-year Tech head coach Chuck Morrell might do the same with the Coach of the Year award. After a rough 2011 campaign, Morrell looks to have quickly turned the Diggers’ around and if they can keep up the pace in the second half, he’ll have them back in the NAIA playoffs.
Wow, have there been some eye-popping single-game performances in the first half 2012. Too many to list. But here’s a few that really stand out.
Rocky’s Bryce Baker has the best passing performance of the season, a 544-yard master piece against SOU back on Sept. 8. However, in Northern’s win over Western on Sept. 22, Lear may have topped that, though he only threw for 533 yards, but he did connect on seven touchdowns. Teammate, Stephen Silva has the best single-game rushing performance this season. Last weekend against Rocky, Silva ran for 217 yards and two scores and broke three more Northern records in the process.
In the receiving department, SOU’s Cole Mackenzie had a 244-yard outing against Rocky back in early September, while Northern’s Brandon O’Brien totaled 208 yards and three touchdowns on just eight catches against Western.
As far as the complete package, Carroll’s Dakota Stonehouse had a game to remember last month against EOU. The junior first-year starter totaled 185 yards passing and another 145 on the ground and accounted for four touchdowns while completing 77 percent of his passes and accounting for 9.8 yards per play from scrimmage.
On the defensive side of the ball, nothing can top McDonald’s first two weeks. The EOU junior combined for 48 total tackles, three sacks and an interception in a two-week stretch against Tech and Northern to start the season.
Down to the Wire
The Frontier could certainly go down to the very end this season, and the race officially looks to be between Tech and Carroll, though the two bitter rivals won’t meet again and if anyone can give chase at this point, it’s likely SOU and MSU-N.
Tech’s road trips to EOU on Oct. 20 and SOU on Nov. 10, and Carroll’s visit to SOU on Oct. 27 could be the three most important games of the second half for those two clubs, and the Frontier title could very well be decided on what happens in those three games in Oregon.
Meanwhile, some other big games to watch in the second half include MSU-N’s home game with SOU on Oct. 13. Those two offenses could literally run the grass right off the field at Blue Pony Stadium. The matchup between the Lights and Saints in Helena on Oct. 20 as well as the second rivalry game between SOU and EOU Nov. 3 will also be big ones to watch as the regular season draws to a close.