HELENA — Carroll knows it needs to improve.
With a bye week in its grasp, the Saints coaching staff is spending the time putting together “cutups.” The idea, coach Mike Van Diest said, is to objectively look back at Carroll’s tendencies and address anything overt. This isn’t necessarily unique to just the bye week, but with extra time off before the Oct. 7 home game against College of Idaho, it gives Carroll more time to hone in.
“We have to keep working on the same things that gave us problems in the first half of the season,” Van Diest said.
A recent area of concern, and something opponents will dial in on while watching film, is the Saints’ ability to defend the screen to running backs. Van Diest said Southern Oregon, which hit some big plays in a 35-14 win over Carroll last weekend, did a good job of taking advantage of Carroll’s linebackers in the screen game. Linebackers in particular are a point of pride for Van Diest’s defenses.
“We had players that should have been in position and weren’t there to make a play; (big gains) were a result of it,” he said.
Tanner Trosin hit a few long passes and Rey Vega ripped off a long run to give Southern Oregon all the momentum early last weekend, and deflate the Saints.
“Four of those plays, we didn’t even contest them,” Van Diest said.
The Saints have been gouged for big plays in each of their three losses. Montana Tech, Rocky Mountain College and Southern Oregon, which are the top three scoring offenses in the Frontier, all popped the Saints for long gains or touchdowns. Carroll held Montana State-Northern in check, but on average the Saints give up 421 yards and 31 points per game, a far cry from the Saints’ stout defenses of the past.
It doesn’t mean the team can’t get back to being a solid defensive team, but Van Diest knows it’s a matter of adjusting his play-calling and finding a surefire way to get his players to execute responsibilities. As the midway point of the season draws near, the Saints hope adjustments can turn around a tough start to the season.
The bye week allows the Saints to also get ahead on preparing for College of Idaho, which Van Diest figures the team will be practicing for on Wednesday. With no game this week, the Saints practice Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday. Players will mostly be in meetings and lifting on Friday and will have Saturday off, a necessary break.
“We have a couple guys banged up and they can heal up,” Van Diest said. “We have to practice and try to put our players in some competitive situations.”
A few of those battling injuries are all-conference receiver Connor Fohn and his counterpart, Troy Arntson. Fohn hasn’t been the same receiver he was a season ago, and has been held out in recent games. Arntson has yet to fully display his receiver capabilities like he did a season ago. In their absence, other receivers have stepped up.
Redshirt freshman Shane Sipes is growing more comfortable in his expanded role, something that wasn’t necessarily expected entering the season. The talk out of spring ball and fall camp was the development of Paul Hart and Joe Farris, who have both played well at times this season. Eric Dawson’s return from injury also commanded a lot of attention early. But Sipes figured to be a return man and backup. He showed his return capabilities two weekends ago against MSU-Northern, rumbling to a 85-yard touchdown on a kickoff return. Last week against SOU, Sipes showed more comfort in the passing game, finishing the day as Tanner Gustavsen’s top target with five receptions for 94 yards.
Van Diest figured if he ever had a full crop of receivers healthy, his offense might be the one terrorizing opposing defenses. It was a thought Nick Howlett confirmed early in the season, too, laughing about the thought of having so many weapons at his disposal.
And while there are other injuries nagging the Saints, certainly the offense could use a boost. The Saints did dominate the ball in the second half against SOU, scoring twice and limiting the Raiders. It remains to be seen if Carroll can keep that up over the course of an entire game. In the Saints’ three losses, Carroll has been unable to play a solid, complete contest.
Now, staring at a 1-3 record, and a swath of injuries, the Saints have some figuring to do.