With their backs against the wall and the deck stacked against them, the Carroll College Saints turned to the man who’s got it done for them all year. 

Junior running back Chance Demarais carried the ball 11 times on Carroll’s clock-eating, 9-minute drive before leaping over the pile and across the goal line from 1 yard out for the Saints’ first lead of the game. The go-ahead touchdown with 1:51 remaining Saturday held up as the game-winner, when Carroll linebacker Joe Dunning picked off Azusa Pacific quarterback John van den Raadt on the Cougars’ final drive. 

The scoreboard at Nelson Stadium read 17-14 in favor of Carroll, as smiling players hoisted teary-eyed Saints assistant coaches into the air and a dejected Azusa squad slowly made its way off the field. It was Carroll’s 11th straight victory and fifth straight NAIA quarterfinal win. It also marked the first time the Division II-bound Cougars had lost at this stage of the playoffs.

“I could care less about my touchdown, but I’m very happy that we won,” said the humble Demarais, who was named Frontier Conference offensive player of the year this past week. “Our offensive line was just pushing and I wanted to make sure I was able to help them out as much as I could. God gave me the strength to keep going and push forward.”

Demarais went up over the middle out of the I-formation on the final touchdown, the Malta native’s second score of the day. He finished with 128 yards on 30 carries, and was happy to be able to redeem himself following a first-quarter fumble. The Saints (12-1) were far from mistake-free, but rose to the occasion when they needed to most. The seniors weren’t ready to turn in their uniforms.

“It’s survival instinct, it’s do or die. Your season could be over in 30 minutes,” senior receiver Matt Ritter said when asked what the feeling was at halftime, with Azusa leading 14-10. “We came together as a group and decided that wasn’t going to happen. We stuck it out there at the end and put one last drive together. It was amazing to see the heart of the guys on offense. That offensive line just kept pushing and pushing, that’s what they do.”

The Cougars (9-3) came out champing at the bit to get their first win over the defending national champions, and looked every bit capable of doing so on the opening drive. Azusa’s first play from scrimmage was a 38-yard run by running back Johnell Murphy, and the visitors marched the ball down the field on a six-play series that culminated in a 5-yard touchdown run, when Murphy ran straight up the middle untouched. 

“They came out in the first quarter and showed why they’re the No. 1 running team in the nation,” said Carroll coach Mike Van Diest, whose defense allowed a season-high 233 rushing yards. “We settled down after the first quarter and I thought we played a great defensive game after that.”

Carroll answered with a seven-play scoring drive of its own, as Demarais broke two tackles and ran over a defender to take it in from 14 yards out, tying the game at 7-all. The Saints defense held Azusa to a quick three-and-out series, but the Carroll offense turned it over four plays later when Dakota Stonehouse fumbled and Jacob Henderson recovered. The turnover led to a go-ahead score for the Cougars, a 3-yard run by Terrel Watson. 

Following Anthony Clarke’s second big kickoff return of the day, Demarais lost the ball on Carroll’s first play from scrimmage when Jimmy Young plowed his helmet into the ball. This time the Saints’ defense held, as van den Raadt came up a yard shy on a fourth-and-4 run from the Carroll 29-yard line.

The Saints started out moving the chains well on their next possession, and would have had a touchdown if not for an offensive pass interference penalty. The drive went backwards from there, as Carroll was flagged for a false start on the next play, and another false start after Dane Broadhead took a 10-yard loss on a sack. What began as first-and-goal from the 2 turned into third-and-37, and the Saints were forced to settle for a field goal. 

Azusa kicker Eric DeLira missed a field-goal attempt just before halftime, then failed to convert again on a 24-yarder in the third quarter. Both defenses came out of the locker room strong in the second half, as neither team found the end zone until Demarais did with less than 2 minutes to go. The Saints made some defensive adjustments at the break, and the result was a second-half shutout.

“I got rid of a couple of calls. ... We said, ‘Let’s just play straight football, technique and alignment,’” Van Diest said. “We were outmanned a little bit size-wise, so I wanted to move because when I watched Lindenwood and some of the other teams (Azusa had played) I thought movement hurt them a little bit, but it just hurt us today.”

Carroll’s defensive front struggled early on against the Cougars’ massive O-line, bolstered by 6-foot-10, 320-pound tackle Luke Marquardt. But even with his team’s size advantage in the trenches, the mobile van den Raadt was mostly kept in check. The quarterback passed for 103 yards but ran for just 16.

“The tailback hurt us before halftime but we didn’t let their quarterback run the football,” Van Diest said. “I think that was the real key, our guys did a good job on him.”

The purple-and-gold made sure Carroll came out on the right side of the turnover battle, with Andrew Lopez’s momentum-changing interception in front of the Carroll sideline in the third frame; a fumble forced by Brian Strobel and recovered by Noah McWilliams early in the fourth quarter; and Dunning’s last-minute heroics. McWilliams’ fumble recovery set the Saints up for their game-winning drive, and brought new life to a crowd that began screaming chants of “Here we go, Carroll!”

“We shot ourselves in the foot with penalties, some missed assignments and we just couldn’t get a rhythm going in that first half,” Van Diest said. “But the last drive it seemed like everything fell into place. Dane stayed in the pocket, and what can you say about Chance and the offensive line? He’s the player of the year in the conference, maybe the player of the year in the nation.”

The final drive showcased the smashmouth football Carroll has become known for this season, with the NAIA’s top rusher leading the charge. The Saints never strayed from their run-first offense, despite the earlier miscues.

“You can’t take the ball out of Chance’s hands,” Van Diest said. “He fights for extra yards and he lost one ... that was the first true fumble he lost this year. Nobody’s gonna feel worse than him and he wanted to come back and prove himself.”

If the Saints ever got rattled by pre-snap penalties, turnovers or the sheer rarity of having to play from behind, it didn’t show. The Carroll players kept their composure, even if their coach had trouble keeping his emotions in check at times.

“The only guy excited was me,” Van Diest said. “The players keep their calm ... they know what they need to do. They responded today, they didn’t let their emotions get too high. They let their intensity take over, and there’s a difference between emotion and intensity.”

Ritter, who led the Saints’ receiving corps with seven catches for 62 yards, said the offense knew it could count on the defense to get the ball back when drives stalled. 

“We always preach about this being a team,” the Butte Central product said. “When offense or defense slips up, the rest of the team’s got our back and that really showed today. It was just a great overall effort by our team and I’m proud. I’m so glad we get another week of football.”

Azusa Pacific outgained the Saints 336 yards to 276, behind Murphy’s 128 rushing yards. Jake Jones led the Cougars’ eagle defense with 10 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack. 

“They’re definitely the best offense we’ve seen all year, they have playmakers all over the field,” said Dunning, who finished with eight tackles, second only to Strobel (nine). “We just did our jobs, filled our gaps. Everyone contributed and we got the win, thank God.”

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