Lights close at vaunted Carroll
If the Montana State University-Northern Lights are looking to go out with a win in their final regular season game, they couldn't have picked a more difficult circumstance in which to do it.
On Saturday in Helena the Lights (3-6, 3-6) will close out their season when they meet No. 2 Carroll College at 12 p.m. inside Nelson Stadium.
The Lights come into Saturday's tilt having lost two straight games, including a 49-17 blowout loss last weekend at Rocky Mountain College. Northern is also a banged up team with key players either rout or playing hurt. And on top of everything else, it's senior day at Carroll (9-0, 9-0) and the Saints already have a 65-13 win over MSU-N last month in Havre to their credit.
"There's mixed emotions about this final game," MSU-N head coach Mark Samson said. "We've actually had a pretty good week of practice, but when it comes to the game, I'm just not really sure what to expect. Hopefully, we go down there and play our best for four quarters."
After wins over UM-Western and Montana Tech, things have gotten difficult for the Lights. Turnovers have again been the story as MSU-N turned the ball over three times at Rocky last week, and three times in the second half of its 39-36 loss to Eastern Oregon two weeks ago.
If the Lights are to have a chance against the Saints, they'll have to do better than that on offense. MSU-N will need to take care of the ball, get it in the hands of steady playmakers like Matt Stuart, Brandon O'Brien, Orin Johnson and emerging tight end Brian Torgerson. The Lights will also have to try and find a run game against Carroll's stingy 4-3 defense with Stephen Silva and Justin Montelius, and if they do that, they will move the chains and keep the Carroll offense, which averages a gaudy 43 points per game, off the field as much as possible.
"It really comes down to turnovers the last couple of games," Samson said. "Again at Rocky, we were in good shape at the start of the second quarter, but turnovers really hurt us. And we know full well we can't make those kinds of mistakes against Carroll."
Northern's defense has an equally daunting task on Saturday. In the first meeting with the Saints, the Lights yielded almost 400 yards of offense, and way too many yards on the ground. Carroll will likely look to control the ball this weekend with tailbacks John Camino and Chance Demarias, who average a combined 168 yards per game. Camino comes into his final home game as a Saint gaining 90 yards per game on the ground, while Demerais is just back from an injury.
But shutting down Carroll's running game is only half the battle.
Former Havre Blue Pony star Gary Wagner will make his final regular season collegiate start against his hometown school Saturday, and he comes into the game on fire. Wagner had a near perfect game the first time he played the Lights, throwing for throwing three touchdowns and going 15-of-18 with no interceptions. And he's continued that pace since. Wagner currently leads the Frontier and is second in the NAIA in completion percentage and passer rating, and he has a healthy Bubba Bartlett back to throw to. So Northern's defense will have its hands full every which way on Saturday.
But perhaps more important than trying to stop the Saints, the Lights head into their final game wanting to play, wanting to finish on a positive note no matter the outcome. MSU-N is a young team trying to build for the future and the Lights would like to go into the offseason on a high note.
"This is our last shot for this year, our last chance to go out and try and get a win," Samson said. "Expectations were higher at the start of the season, but things just haven't worked out that way.
"Hopefully, the guys are looking at this game as an opportunity," he added. "Because on Sunday we put the pads away for the year. So hopefully we go down there, play our hardest and give it our very best. That's all we can do."
Saturday's game between the Lights and Saints will kick off at 12 p.m. in Helena. While Northern's season comes to an end Saturday, Carroll will host a first-round NAIA playoff game against an opponent yet to be determined on Nov. 20.