Frontier football could be as deep as it's ever been
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George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor [email protected]
With the 2009 NAIA football season on the verge of getting underway, there are three certainties when it comes to the Frontier Conference. First, few people can remember the last time Carroll College didn't begin a season as the defending Frontier champions; second, there is no doubt the one pass-happy Frontier is now dominated by defense, and finally, the quarterback position is as important to every team in the league as it is to NFL squads. In 2008, the Saints ran the table in the Frontier, going undefeated all the way to the NAIA championship game where they lost to Sioux Falls. But after losing starter Gary Wagner to a broken leg in the second game of the season, Carroll had to look for guidance from a pair of true freshmen quarterbacks, and the Saints offense was never really the same after that. Still, the league was a league of signal callers and defense in 2008. On one side of the ball, Rocky Mountain's Kasey Peters and a host of Western quarterbacks threw for enormous amounts of yards Peters finished tops among passers in the NAIA, while Eastern Oregon freshman Chris Ware earned was named the Frontier's top QB. But defense was still the name of the game in the league, as three Frontier teams, Carroll, MSU-Northern and Montana Tech all finished among the NAIA's Top 20 in multiple defensive categories. And with the 2009 Frontier season just over a week away, and teams getting started on Saturday, those three factors are still in play. Everyone is trying to knock the Saints form their Frontier pedestal, the league will feature many great passers and defense, as always will be at a premium. Here's a look at the Frontier Conference and each of its teams in their predicted order of finish for 2009. Carroll College Fighting Saints (10-0, 14-1 in 2008) The Saints have now long stood as the premier program in the Frontier and in the NAIA. In 10 years at Carroll, head coach Mike Van Diest has led the Saints to nine straight Frontier titles and five NAIA national championships. But 2008 was different for Carroll, The best team in the nation on defense, Carroll lost its way for a time offensively, especially after losing Wagner to a season-ending injury. Still, the Saints rallied behind freshmen Dane Broadhead and Matt Ritter, losing only in the NAIA title game. Now, with Wagner healthy and back at the helm, Carroll will look to re power i ts of fense this season, especially with star running backs John Camino and Gabe Le in the fold, as well as a strong offensive line. But Wagner, who will be one of the league's elite signal callers, has mostly new targets to throw to as all-american Travis Browne and the Saint's top three receivers are all gone. On defense Carroll also has to replace NAIA Defensive Player of the Year Owen Koeppen, and several key linemen, but there's no reason to believe with players like Mac Gordon at linebacker and a host of solid defenders, that Carroll won't field another stingy defense this season and that was enough to lead the Frontier coaches to pick the Saints to defend their league title once again. MSU-Northern Lights (7-3, 7-3 in 2008) The Lights enter 2009 with a chip on their shoulder and rightfully so. Northern finished second in the Frontier a year ago, and was the only Top 25 NAIA team to have to play Carroll, not once, but twice. And still it wasn't good enough to get the Lights into the playoffs. Now, MSU-N is back for another run at the playoffs, and the Lights should have as balanced a team as they've had in several years. MSU-N must replace the Frontier's leading rusher and conference MVP Justin Moe in the backfield, but the Lights have perhaps one of the most experienced offensive lines in the league, as well as the deepest wide receiver group, led by Coda Tchida, Matt Stuart, Kyle Kercher and Garren Hammons. Northern also has a new starting quarterback for the third straight year, as senior Jeff Van Nest steps back into that role after Nick Petrino played just one year for the Lights. MSU-N is younger but no less talented on the defensive side of the ball, but injuries and departures at defensive end have left some concern. But the Lights have perhaps the best l inebacking crew and the best defensive player in the Frontier in senior Stetson Koffman, a three-year starter, and he's complimented by sophomore Landry See, who had a breakout freshmen season. With a speedy and potentially explosive offense, if the Lights can mold their defense into the standard by wi ch MSU-N ha s b e c ome accustomed to, there is no reason Northern can't make a run at not only a Frontier title, but a deep playoff push as well. Eastern Oregon Mountaineers (4-6, 5-6 in 2008) The Mountaineers may have had a sub .500 record in 2008, but they shocked plenty of people after they were picked to finish dead last and wound up tied for third in the Frontier. Freshman quarterback Chris Ware had a monster season for the Mounties, earning Frontier First Team honors, and he's back to lead EOU's dynamic offense yet again. The Mountains have a difficult spread offense style and Ware and a talented group of receivers make them difficult to defend. Defense is the question mark this season at EOU, as the Mounties are still inexperienced in their front seven. Sti ll , wi th perhaps the most dangerous offense in the NAIA west of the Mississippi and one of the best home field advantages because of distance from Montana, EOU could make plenty of noise in the Frontier this season, and they are surely no easy win anymore. Montana Tech Orediggers (4-6, 4-7 in 2008) Nobody in the Frontier Conference got off to a worse start last season than Montana Tech. The Orediggers lost their first three games of the season, and never really recovered as head coach Bob Green suffered through his first losing season in quite some team. Once a perennial NAIA playoff team, the Orediggers are now predicted to finish just fourth in the Frontier. But with an always-stout defense, Tech cannot be overlooked in this, Green's 22nd season at the helm. Tech returns another strong defensive unit, but the questions arise on the offensive side of the ball. Once heralded starting quarterback Matt Komac was actually benched for a time last season, but is back as a more experienced starter this season. If he can find a way to cut down on turnovers this year, after leading the league in that category a year ago, Tech's offense could shine with a big offensive line and a solid running game led by tailback Skyler Knuchel. UM-Western Bulldogs (2-8, 2-9 in 2008) Under first-year head coach Rich Ferris, the UM-Western Bulldogs had high hopes entering the 2008 season. But after an injury-plagued year, especially at the quarterback position, the unusually high-octane Bulldogs sputtered to just two wins. The season was a disappointment considering Western was a popular preseason pick to finish among the league leaders last year. And expectations aren't high coming into the 2009 season in Dillon. There is no doubt Western will still be a s t rong of fens ive team wi t h quarterbacks Micah Mamiya and Garrett Graves back to throw to standouts Craigh Cornelius and Colton Woods. Scoring has never been a concern at Western and with so much speed and talent, it shouldn't be this year either. But the Bulldogs have been plagued by injury and a knack for turnovers the past few seasons, and if their defense doesn' t come together, Western's offense might not be able to keep up. Still, the Bulldogs are always a dangerous opponent and with such a talented roster, they make the Frontier one of the deepest leagues in the country. Rocky Mountain College Bears (3-7, 4-7) Like UM-Western, RMC had high hopes for 2008. With one of the top offense in the country, and loaded with talent, the Battlin' Bears seemed poised for a breakout campaign. And while the Bears did have an explosive offense, led by transfer Kasey Peters, a gut-wrenching loss to Northern in the second week of the season seemed to derail their season. Now, RMC must carry on without longtime head coach David Reeves, who left the program just before fall camp opened to take a job at Northern Arizona. And while the league's coaches picked Rocky to finish last in the Frontier, the Bears faithful don't see it that way. Rocky has Peters back for his senior year, a loaded group of receivers and two dynamic running backs. So, if the Bears' offensive line can hold its own, there is no reason to think RMC won's be one of the scariest offenses in the conference again this year. However, RMC's never pinned their hopes of success on the offense. It's the Bears' defense which at times has held them back. Rocky does have talent on that side of the ball, but stopping opponents has been a problem for RMC in recent years, and if that trend continues, it may not matter how much the RMC offense does this season. Still, with a team that score like RMC does, it stands to reason that the Bears could upset any team in the Frontier, and that's what makes the league perhaps the deepest its ever been.