One last dance at Blue Pony Stadium
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There are plenty of reasons why the Carroll College/MSU-Northern football rivalry is so special.
After all, MSU-N head coach Mark Samson and longtime wide receivers coach Scott Leeds have strong ties to the Saints' program. On the flip side, Carroll has had success with former Blue Ponies like Leeds and current Saints' defensive backs coach Jarrod Wirt, who was an all-conference defensive back for Carroll during two of their national title runs.
Then, there is the fact that Northern is the only Frontier Conference program to have beaten the Saints in the last five seasons. Carroll is currently riding a 36-game Frontier winning streak after last week's 31-13 demolishing of Montana Tech in Helena. When the Lights last beat the Saints back in October of 2006, Carroll was in the midst of a 32-game winning streak.
But what will make this Saturday's Carroll/Northern clash even more intriguing is the fact that former Blue Pony Gary Wagner will be playing his last game in any uniform in Blue Pony Stadium. Wagner helped lead the Ponies to the 2004 Class A state championship and set Class A passing records for yards and touchdowns in a season that year.
In all, Wagner has made Blue Pony Stadium his home, whether in the Havre blue and white or the Carroll purple and gold. As a college quarterback, Wagner is 1-0 as a starter at Blue Pony Stadium. He missed a start his sophomore year when he suffered a season-ending broken leg in Carroll's second game, but he helped lead the Saints to a 50-13 win in last year's meeting in Havre.
"It's always great to get back home and play on the field I grew up on," Wagner said. "I played there for four years in high school and I've been fortunate enough to get to play there at least once a year during my college career. So it's always exciting to go back.
"I tell people this all the time, Blue Pony Stadium is one of the best stadiums in Montana," he added. "And it's always special for me to go and play in front of my home town. Hopefully, I can play well and put a good game together for my last game I'll ever play there."
As for the game itself, Wagner is coming off a shoulder injury which sidelined him for two weeks. He returned to help the Saints down Tech last Saturday in Helena playing brilliantly by completing 17 passes and rushing for 40 yards. He threw for one TD and rushed for one more score. But it's Carroll's running game which has been almost unstoppable this season.
The Saints are averaging almost 200 yards per game on the ground, while they give up just 58 yards on the ground. That should make for an interesting contest because the Lights are second in the Frontier in rushing offense and second in the league in rushing defense. In fact, despite Northern's 1-3 start to the season, the Lights and Saints will meet Saturday as the top two teams in the Frontier in almost every defensive and offensive category.
MSU-N also has an individual leader in the NAIA as teams near the halfway point in the season. Northern senior safety Casey Varner comes into Saturday's game leading the nation in interceptions with five. In fact, three of the top five NAIA leaders in INT's come from the Frontier with Montana Tech's Jordan Herringer No. 2 with four picks.
The Orediggers will have to rebound in a hurry from their loss at Carroll if they want to stay on track for an NAIA playoff berth. Tech has to go home to face winless UM-Western in a rivalry game this week with a lot on the line. The Diggers' can likely only afford just one more loss or they'll be out of playoff contention, and they are squaring off with a Western team which relishes its roll as Tech's biggest rival.
The Bulldogs are reeling, but its not for lack of defense. UM-W has the top three tacklers in the league led by Curtis Quigley, and despite their 0-5 start, they are playing sound defense, especially against the run.
Perhaps the biggest game this weekend will take place in Billings. Two streaking teams will hook up at Herb Klindt Field when Rocky Mountain College faces Eastern Oregon. Two weeks ago, both teams were sitting near the bottom of the Frontier, but both bring back-to-back wins into Saturday's matchup. The winner of Saturday's game will go to 3-2 in Frontier play, and Rocky is trying to get above the .500 mark for the first time in four years in conference play.
Quarterbacks will always be key in the Rocky/EOU rivalry, and the two teams, with all-americans Kasey Peters (RMC) and Chris Ware (EOU) have put on plenty of fireworks in their last four meetings, but defense might just win the day Saturday.
RMC's defense has made big strides this season, especially with the play up front of Phil Urlacher, Tom Willis and Paul Palu. The pressure applied by Rocky's front three might be enough to slow down Ware, while EOU's defense is the opposite. The Mounties have talent with Seath Kimball and others, but they rank dead last in most Frontier defensive categories. And with a Rocky offense which is starting to pick up steam, and a much-improved defense, the Bears should have an edge Saturday in what is becoming an outstanding rivalry.
Saturday's game between Northern and Carroll will also be MSU-N's homecoming game, as well as Military Appreciation Day at Northern. The Saints moved up one slot to No. 2 in the most recent NAIA poll. Carroll has come to Havre ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in the NAIA in each of its last seven trips to Blue Pony Stadium.