HELENA -- Make that three in a row for the Fighting Saints.
Major Ali ran for 175 yards and a touchdown and Carroll College thwarted Montana Western 24-15 on Saturday at Nelson Stadium in the Saints' last home game of the season.
“Major Ali ran like a man today,” Saints safety Tucker Johnson said.
The day – a brisk, Montana winter one-- was full of big plays for the Saints.
“If this was any other sport they would have canceled it,” Saints coach Mike Van Diest said of the snowy conditions. Carroll’s grounds crew, made up of athletes and facility members, cleared the field and stands prior to the game. “You don’t cancel a football game. It’s about a mindset. That’s old-fashioned football today: our run defense and our run offense. We don’t have to be fancy. It’s not that we don’t have skill. But it’s going to come down to who’s going to tackle. Who’s going to wrap on a cold day.”
The Saints did, led by David Anderson’s 12 tackles.
Carroll held Western running back Hunter Thomsen to 54 yards, 20 of which game on one play. Western gave him the ball 20 times, and Carroll contained the bruiser. Thomsen entered the game as the second leading rusher in the Frontier Conference. The Saints knocked him down a peg on Saturday.
“When Thomsen is running the football, he’s hard-nosed,” Van Diest said. “We had to shut him down. Our defense did a great job tackling.”
Carroll as a team rushed for 280 yards.
“They were bigger than us and played way harder,” Western coach Ryan Norse said. “We didn’t’ tackle well. They wanted the game, I think, way more than we did. You could tell that with how we played. This is the end of the season in Montana. Toughest team wins. They were tougher today.”
Reece Hiibel and Chase Fossum combined for a 66-yard throw and catch, falling just short of the end zone on the Saints opening drive. The Saints used three run plays from inside the 3-yard line, the last play a 1-yard touchdown run by Ali to put the Saints ahead 7-0.
The Saints nearly had a second three and out forced by their defense on the next drive, but Western elected to go for it on fourth and 1 and quarterback Bennett Gibson ran a QB keeper and stretched for the first down. Then, David Anderson nearly had an interception, which looked like it would have gone for a touchdown the other way, but then Gibson connected with Nate Simkins on fourth and five. A play later, Hunter Thomsen ran in from a yard out to tie the game.
In one drive, the Bulldogs picked up two fourth down conversions, but the Saints weren’t deflated.
“We were beating ourselves,” Van Diest said. “Not to take away from Western. I thought all the things we did on defense that hurt us was correctable because we were the ones at fault. We just had to do our job and play sound defense.”
Carroll’s D, once again, put the Bulldogs in a highly unfavorable situation on their second drive with a third and 22. However, Gibson found Kylar Prante out of the back field and then a personal foul on the Saints allowed Western to pick up the first down. Carroll’s defense stiffened and Western settled for a 43-yard field goal by Mark Kharchenko, making the game 10-7.
Carroll nearly gave the Bulldogs six more points on third down the ensuing possession when Hiibel gunned a pass into the arms of a Bulldog defender who couldn't hang on. Instead the Saints were lucky to punt.
The Saints’ pass rush finally got to Gibson on the Bulldogs’ next drive, as Payton Sexe and Craig Kein combined for a sack to squash the drive.
Hiibel had an up an down day in the passing game, benefiting from Western players dropping interceptions. The luck only lasted so long, as Kyle Schulte picked off Hiibel near midfield. He completed 7 of 17 passes for 146 yards, a touchdown and an interception on the day.
“I think he throws the ball well but there’s a couple plays today where he could have had better decision-making,” Van Diest said. “There’s little things that he’s doing and it doesn’t show up in the stats maybe with his percentage. Every pass he completes is for a first down or a touchdown and that’s big time. He needs to keep getting better. As long as we can keep running the football, the pressure isn’t on him.”
The defense came up huge again following the interception. On fourth and 1, the Bulldogs ran Prante. Johnson met him in the backfield and held him short of a first down, giving Carroll the ball back trailing 10-7.
“I’m so proud of Tucker Johnson on that fourth down play to make that stop,” Van Diest said. “That’s a big turning point.”
“It was perfect,” Johnson said. “It was exactly how we drew it up. Our bandit spilled it outside. I saw down downblocks by the tackle. It bled right out to me. I did my job and made a tackle. It’s easy when the D-line does their job too.”
Hiibel bounced back after the turnover. He nailed Ryan Walsh in stride on a go route out of the back field and picked up 23 yards to spark the Saints’ offense. The drive stalled, however, when Hiibel tried to sneak a ball into double coverage, looking for the end zone. Dylan Torgerson knocked through a 35-yard field goal to tie the game at 10.
The Bulldogs went down the field in about a minute and hit another field goal to take a 13-10 lead into halftime.
Carroll’s run game came out of the locker room empowered to start the second half. Walsh, Ali and Troy Arntson (out of the wildcat) all had strong runs, driving the Saints into Bulldogs’ territory. Then, Hiibel hit Shane Sipes on a streak for a 25-yard touchdown to give the Saints a 17-13 lead.
“We haven’t been that great of making something out of drives coming out of halftime or the first drive of the game,” Saints offensive lineman Chris Emter said. “We decided we needed to come out of the locker room fired up. We needed to keep the intensity up and make something out of the first drive. That sort of sets the precedent for the rest of the half.”
The sides then swapped three and outs.
After fourth down conversions had been so kind to the Bulldogs in the first half, second half wasn’t nearly as friendly. Facing a fourth and 2 from the Carroll College 6-yard line, the Bulldogs ran Thomsen off the left side. Reece Quade found him in the backfield and the Bulldog drive ended without any points.
“Defensively, we knew we had to step up and come up big for the team,” Johnson said. “Fourth down, those are the situations we want. We want to be put on the field on fourth down in big, key moments and we want to make that stop.”
Ali and the offensive line worked over the Bulldogs defense early in the fourth quarter, driving down to the 10-yard lime. A stumble by Hiibel on a play-action pass on second and 3 put the Saints in a third-and-goal situation with 13 yards to go.
Then, Eric Dawson rumbled.
Dawson, similarly to Hiibel the play prior, had trouble getting his footing, and looked like he would go down for a loss. But he regained his footing, juked outside and sprinted toward the end zone and dove for the pylon. A play that looked like a major let down became a major triumph.
“That last touchdown is one for the ages,” Van Diest said. “That should go on ESPN highlights. That’s a bigtime run.”
Carroll forced a three and out and looked like it may be able to put the game away with the way its run game had fared. But the Bulldogs backed the Saints up inside their own 10 and put Torgerson in a peculiar position for his punt. The Bulldogs broke through and blocked it, but Quade sagely dove on the ball and prevented a touchdown, instead giving the Bulldogs a safety.
“The play of the game might be Reece Quade recovering the ball in the end zone for a safety,” Van Diest said. “If they get it for a touchdown, that’s a whole different ball game.”
After the punt, Gibson connected with Melvin Walser for a big gain, and then Parker Bernhardt picked off Gibson and helped the Saints seal the game.
As he made his return, Bernhardt trucked Western running back Thomsen, delivering the last big hit of the game.
“All I knew is when I caught the ball I wasn’t going to cut and slip and I wasn’t going to try to fumble,” Bernhardt said, laughing. “I locked the ball up and put my shoulder down.”
The Saints, once a 1-5 team, are now 4-5 and look completely rejuvenated. Though the playoffs have been out of the question for a while, the Saints look like they could give anybody a strong game now.
“It’s the same kids with the same attitude,” Van Diest said. “They just had to pick themselves off the turf at halftime at Southern Oregon. We had a not a great second half against Tech. We didn’t have a good game against Rocky. First half against Southern Oregon … everything else has been good. You take away eight quarters of season … unfortunately that’s where we’re at. We still get to coach and these guys still love playing. It’s a great thing.”
Carroll (4-5, 4-5) travels to La Grande to close the season out against Eastern Oregon (3-6, 3-6) next weekend.