It certainly has been an incredible season of Frontier Conference football. Just look at all that’s happened since Carroll College beat the Montana State University-Northern Lights 31-6 on Aug. 24 in Havre.
Carroll has lost four times since and has been eliminated from playoff contention for the first time since 1999. Also, the Frontier championship will not include the Saints for the first time in 12 years. Meanwhile, Montana Tech has gone from 3-8 in 2011 to 8-1 now and on the verge of an outright Frontier title, an NAIA playoff berth and perhaps a run at a national championship.
Then there’s the addition of Southern Oregon to the league. In the first year SOU has been part of the Frontier, the Red Raiders are 7-2 with a chance to clinch a share of the Frontier title on the last day of the regular season. The Raiders have scored 50 or more points in seven of eight games this season and they have scored 50 points or more five times. The Raiders beat Carroll for the first time in school history and have demolished much of the competition all season long.
Surely, this isn’t your old-school Frontier anymore.
And since the season draws to a close on Saturday, it’s time to hand out some postseason awards, at least my thought on them anyway.
The Player of the Year awards are all but locked up.
On offense, there’s no disputing SOU sophomore quarterback Austin Dodge, who’s thrown for 3,839 yards and 30 touchdowns with just five interceptions through nine games. Dodge leads the NAIA in almost every major offensive category and he’s lead an SOU offense which averages 55 points and 521 yards of total offense per game.
Honorable mention nods for offensive MVP go to Dodge’s top wide receiver, Patrick Donahue, as well as Northern quarterback Derek Lear, Montana Tech running back Pat Hansen and Carroll College running back Chance Demarais.
While Dodge is running away with the Frontier Offensive Player of the Year, and most likely NAIA National Player of the Year, Eastern Oregon linebacker Howard McDonald has done the same on defense.
McDonald leads the NAIA in total tackles with 133 and averages a staggering 16.6 per game. He also has four sacks, 10 tackles for loss and one interception through nine games this season, and he’s scored three rushing touchdowns on offense for the Mountaineers.
With Dodge and McDonald piling up huge numbers, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Frontier boasts the NAIA’s top offensive and defensive players this season.
Honorable mention awards for defense go to Tech linebacker Mike Touzinsky, Northern linebacker James Chandless and Carroll linebacker Sean Blomquist.
The Coach of the Year award could be a runaway too. It’s tough to argue what Chuck Morrell has done at Tech in just his second year. He’s completely turned the Diggers’ around, as they are on an eight-game winning streak, and Tech is relevant in the NAIA once again. SOU’s Craig Howard, also in just his second season will likely run second to Morrell in the voting.
One game to decide it all
It’s been a while, in fact, it’s been seven years since the Frontier title has come down to the last day of the season. But that’s what SOU and Tech will be battling for Saturday in Ashland, Ore. Tech beat SOU 48-45 in double overtime in Butte back in September, so if the Red Raiders were to win on Saturday, the two teams would finish with a share of the league title, with an 8-2 record, while the automatic bid to the playoffs would come down to a tiebreaker system. If the Orediggers win, they’ll win the league title outright for the first time in 15 years and advance to the NAIA playoffs with perhaps home field advantage for at least two rounds.
But win or lose, Tech, ranked No. 7 in the latest NAIA Coaches Poll, is a lock for the playoffs. SOU is in a more precarious position however. The Red Raiders are ranked No. 12 this week, and a home loss to Tech could drop them from playoff contention for several reasons. The first being that a team must be ranked in the top 14 in the last coaches poll to be considered for an at-large berth, and a loss to Tech could drop SOU beyond that spot. Also, no Frontier team has reached the playoffs with three losses in the last 10 years. So SOU, even with so many big wins this season, is really in a must-win situation against Tech.
Speaking of the playoffs, it looks as though Carroll is out of contention having fallen to No. 22 in the latest poll. The Saints lost to Rocky Mountain College 31-28 last Saturday in Billings, which was their fourth loss of the season and their first to Rocky since the 2000 season. The Battlin’ Bears had lost to Carroll 24 straight times before Saturday’s stunning win at Herb Klindt Field.
Interestingly, Carroll was the key to getting three Frontier teams into the playoffs. Had the Saints beaten the Bears and Dickinson State this week, and SOU beat Tech Saturday, the league would have likely sent all three teams to the playoffs.
But now, with Carroll officially out of the playoff picture for the first time in head coach Mike Van Diest’s career, a Tech win over SOU Saturday would likely mean just one Frontier team will be in the playoff bracket when it’s released on Sunday morning.
Running on the Bears
The Lights will close out what’s been a difficult 2012 season Saturday in Billings when they take on Rocky.
But as difficult as it’s been for a Northern team picked to finish second in the Frontier this season, the Lights have some momentum when it comes to playing RMC, in particular, running back Stephen Silva.
Northern has beaten RMC four straight times, including a season sweep of the Bears last year, and a 42-19 thrashing of RMC back in September at Blue Pony Stadium. And in his last three outings against RMC, Silva has gone over 200 yards rushing twice and has averaged nearly 185 yards per game. Silva set Northern’s single-game rushing record with 201 yards against the Rocky defense last season, then broke it by rushing for 217 yards against RMC back in September.
And while Silva has run wild on Rocky over the course of his career, Northern isn’t shy about playing in Billings either. The Lights have won at Herb Klindt field two of their last three trips into the famed “Rocky Bowl” and the Lights would love nothing more than to finish the season with yet another triumph in the Magic City.