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Few surprises at the halfway point

 

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After five weeks of Frontier Conference football, the Carroll College Fighting Saints are undefeated.

That's not a shocker.

As the league reaches its bye week and the halfway point in the season, things have gone almost according to plan. At least in some ways.

The No. 2 Saints (5-0) are right where they should be and their best football might still be in front of them. Carroll was pushed in early games by Rocky Mountain College, and even UM-Western held the Saints' offense down. But against Frontier stalwarts like Montana Tech and Northern, the last two weeks, the Saints have exploded, scoring 96 points in those two affairs.

Carroll is third in the nation in scoring defense and fourth in the NAIA in total defense heading into the bye week. A stout Carroll defense is no surprise either, and neither is the Saints' running game, which is up to 190 yards per outing. But having two running backs average over 70 yards each and a quarterback in senior Gary Wagner, who is completing an astounding 83 percent of his passes, the Saints' offense is as dynamic as its been in the last four seasons.

No. 21 Montana Tech (4-1) sitting in second place isn't much of a surprise either, but the story with the Orediggers has been offense. Tech usually relies on a stout defense, but the Diggers' got to the halfway mark on the arm and legs of senior quarterback Matt Komac. In his fourth year of starting, it's Komac, and not all-americans Kasey Peters and Chris Ware, who is playing like the best signal-caller in the league.

Tech and Eastern Oregon reach the halfway mark with playoff hopes still alive.

Three weeks ago the Mountaineers (3-2) might have been in line to be the Frontier's biggest disappointment this season, opening their campaign 0-3. But the Mounties' offense seemed to be jump-started with a 50-46 come-from-behind win against Northern three weeks ago, and they haven't lost since.

But what has, and could still hold EOU back the rest of the way is a struggling defense. The Mounties have scored 50 or more points in three of their last four games, but they are also yielding a league-worst 38 points per outing. EOU's defense will have to pick up the slack if it wants to reach its potential and back up the preseason hype which surrounded the team in August.

Last week's 55-45 loss at home to EOU was an elimination game of sorts for Rocky. The Bears have played well since Peters returned, after an 0-2 start without him. Rocky's offense is starting to pick up steam and Peters and receiver Levi Sutton have picked up right where they left a year ago. However, at 2-3 in league play, the Bears look like they will be again fighting for respectability at the end of the season.

The Lights sit at 1-4 in league play, but things aren't always as they seem. Northern has been plagued by injuries which certainly hurts an already young team. The Lights also lost two games in a row by a combined six points and both games could have easily been wins.

MSU-N will hope to turn things around in the second half, but three of its last five games are on the road, and in order to do so, the Lights won't just have to find ways to win away from home, but they'll have to shore up a league-worst five turnovers per game. MSU-N leads the Frontier in takeaways too, but the giveaways have certainly held the Lights back this season.

The biggest disappointment in the first half has to be Western (0-5). The Bulldogs are winless this season after being picked fourth in the preseason. The problem at Western has been scoring and turnovers. The Bulldog defense has played admirably thus far, but in their first four games of the year, the Western offense averaged a meager six points per game. Consistency has also hurt a once-potent Bulldog offense. Western has started three different quarterbacks this season.

As for individual accolades at the halfway mark, it would be hard for anyone to find a better offensive MVP candidate than Eastern Oregon junior Kevin Sampson. The former University of Washington back is averaging 140 yards per game and he leads the NAIA in all-purpose yards per game, averaging almost 250 yards per outing in rushing, receiving and return yards. Sampson has twice gone over 200 yards in a game this season and has 824 rushing yards and nine touchdowns in EOU's normally pass-happy attack. Komac and Carroll running back John Camino have also been great in the first half of the season, and there's still five games to go, but no one has put up the kinds of numbers Sampson has to this point. RMC's Sutton, Western's Colton Woods and Northern's Matt Stuart have been the best receivers in the league's first half.

The defensive MVP at the halfway point is a little more unclear. Offense has ruled the Frontier so far this season, but there have been some great performance on defense too.

Northern's Casey Varner leads the NAIA in interceptions with five, and is the Lights' third-leading tackler. The Lights have also gotten standout performances from Landry See, who is second in the Frontier at 11 tackles per game, and junior Will Andrews, who is in the Top 10 in the league in total tackles and third in tackles-for-loss. Carroll has defensive standouts all over the field, but defensive end Travis Schmidt, linebacker Thomas Dolan and corner Mike Waldenberg could all be candidates for defensive player of the year by season's end.

The most productive defensive player this season though has been Western's Curtis Quigley, who leads the NAIA in total tackles with a whopping 72. Rocky's Phil Urlacher is also having an outstanding year as is EOU's Seath Kimball.

With a week off team's can gear up for the second half of the season, and when the Frontier returns to the field Oct. 16, there will be key matchups right away. The biggest game will be in LaGrande, Ore., with Tech playing at EOU. The loser of that game is out of the NAIA playoff race. Northern plays host to Western on Oct. 16. Carroll is at Rocky that same afternoon.

 
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