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Lights look to halt Saints' march

 

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Playing the NAIA powerhouse that is Carroll College is never easy. There's a reason the Saints have won 36 straight Frontier Conference games.

But playing the Saints while injuries are piling up and three straight losses are in the rear view mirror is an even bigger chore.

But that's what the Montana State University-Northern Lights are facing when they host No. 2 Carroll for MSU-N's homecoming game Saturday at 1 p.m. inside Blue Pony Stadium. Northern (1-3) was the last Frontier Conference team to beat the Saints (4-0). The Lights beat Carroll 10-7 back in October of 2006, but Saturday's challenge will be daunting.

The Lights are dealing with injury problems and they are trying to shrug off a 1-3 start to the season, a season which started with promise when MSU-N beat UM-Western 20-3 back on Aug. 28 in Dillon.

"Practice has been good this week," MSU-N head coach Mark Samson said. "The attitude has been upbeat and the team is excited about this game.

"We know it's going to be a challenge," he added. "The main thing for us right now is we have to be physical with Carroll. We have to not worry about who they are and just get after them. We really have to get back to being a physical football team."

In fact, the Lights have shown they can be physical. Northern is second in the Frontier to Carroll in most defensive categories. The Saints are giving up just 11 points and 58 rushing yards per contest, but the Lights are playing good, by-the-numbers defense too. And with both teams wanting to establish the run, as usual, the Carroll/Northern rivalry will come down to which team can play a more physical brand of defense.

"I believe they'll (Saints) want to come in here and run the ball," Samson said. "They've had a lot of success in the running game this season. Their o-line has played really well, I'm very impressed with that line and what they've done, even with some injuries. And they have two really good running backs. So I think we really have to be geared up to play physical with them and stop the run as best we can."

And Northern, like Carroll has been stout against the run. Saturday's game will feature some of the best defenders in the conference with Carroll touting defensive end Travis Schmidt, nose tackle Mason Siddick, linebacker Thomas Dolan and a highly-experienced secondary with four returning starters. The Lights will counter with stalwarts like Will Andrews, Jared Weigel, standout linebacker Landry See and safety Casey Varner, who leads the league and the NAIA in interceptions with five.

But in order to stop the Carroll attack, which is led by running backs John Camino and Malta's Chance Demarias, as well as a healthy Gary Wagner at quarterback, the Lights will have to do more than just play great defense, they'll have to put together solid drives on offense and limit mistakes which have plagued them in recent home losses to Montana Tech and Rocky Mountain College.

"I like what we've been able to do defensively for the most part this season," Samson said. "We have a lot of guys on defense who are playing hard, playing really well. But we have been proned to giving up the big plays, even when we seem to be playing well. So we have to really take care of that this week.

"On offense, we have to score some points," he added. "We need to sustain drives and move the chains, but the bottom line is, against Carroll, you have to score points, because with their defense, you only get so many chances. And of course, we have to take care of the football. We need to really be a lot better at that than we have been the last few games."

Ball security will fall on the shoulders of Northern's young quarterbacks, Derek Lear and Travis Dean. The Lights are getting takeaways on defense, but they haven't been winning the turnover battle as of late.

But when they are rolling, Northern is a dangerous offensive team. The Lights are second in the Frontier in rushing offense and total offense, and third in scoring.

And sustaining drives could be the way to go, especially with the way sophomore Stephen Silva has been running as of late. Silva rushed for a career-high 134 yards last week against Rocky, and with Justin Montelius healthy again, and fullback James Chandless playing well, scoring three TD's in his last two games, Northern will want to utilize the run to open its passing game up against the Saints. And while Carroll does have an excellent secondary with safety Brian Strobel and corner Mike Waldenberg among others, the Lights have outstanding threats in the passing game, led by senior Matt Stuart, freshman Brandon O'Brien and tight end Luke Wildung.

On the flip side, Northern will hope to stop the Carroll run game, but the Saints can throw too. Wagner, the former Blue Pony great, is back after missing two games with a shoulder injury, and his favorite target, all-american tight end Bubba Bartlett has had monster games against Northern in the past. Carroll could also look to utilize its "wildcat" formation with receiver Matt Ritter taking snaps.

"I think, like us, they (Saints) want to be balanced on offense," Samson said. "They do have an effective passing game and a great tight end in Bubba Bartlett, but I think they want to run it first. For us, the key is to just be physical with them, we have to get back to playing our brand of football, physical hard football on both sides of the ball.

"We know this is a big challenge for us," he added. "So we just need to be focused, come out and play hard and let the chips fall where they may."

Saturday's homecoming game between the Lights and Saints will kickoff at 1 p.m. at Blue Pony Stadium. The game is also part of Military Appreciation day at MSU-N. The Lights have a bye next week as do the Saints.

Notes: Wagner returned last week to throw for one score and rush for another. In Carroll's 32-0 win in Havre a year ago, Bartlett scored two TD's and was over 100 yards receiving. Northern has shifted its offensive line somewhat due to an injury to all-conference left tackle Zeb Olson. Joe Pittman has replaced Olson at left tackle and Alex Cummings has stepped in at guard. The Lights are averaging better than 160 yards on the ground, second only to Carroll's 180 yards per game. Carroll has three former Havre High stars on its roster. Wagner is in his final season with the Saints, while his younger brother, Billy Wagner is a backup receiver. Will DeVries is also redshirting for Carroll this fall.

 
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