BUTTE -- Eric Dawson’s heavy sigh said it all.
The Saints battled evenly with the sixth-ranked Montana Tech Orediggers for a half, but were thrashed in the second, losing 45-28.
Tech and Carroll scheduled this game to be the focus of the Frontier and even the state, playing on Thursday night ahead of other teams. The game moved up the marquee as wildfires in Oregon postponed Eastern Oregon and Southern Oregon’s Thursday night tilt.
Montana’s awful air quality didn’t stop Montana Tech and Carroll. And, for one half, the game looked like it deserved the spotlight.
The Orediggers were expected to win this game. They wanted to give their nearly 5,000 fans a show, scheduling a game under the lights at Bob Green Field and promoting a new copper uniform combination before the game. After winning the Frontier title for the past two seasons, the league’s coaches voted Tech as the top team again in 2017.
The Saints intruded on all the hoopla for a half, but Tech’s imposing offensive and defensive lines, and the deft play of quarterback Quinn McQueary and running back Jed Fike, named the player of the game in his first as an Oredigger, were too much.
Dawson, the athletic tight end who played in his first game back with the Saints since his 2016 season ended prematurely, showed the Saints have more options on offense, but even then it was hard to articulate.
“I think we have a great team,” Dawson said. “I think we need to put all the pieces together. I think we have a fantastic team. We have to put it all together. To be good, everybody has to play at the top level, and we just couldn’t get it done tonight.”
Pausing, sighing, and collecting a beat, Dawson tried his best to describe what makes the 2017 Saints different than the 2016 version, a team he played with for only two games before succumbing to a season-ending injury. That team beat the Orediggers in the season opener. This team looked like it could do it again, for a half, but faded in the second.
“It really seemed like we came to play in the first half and then as we worked into the second half … we didn’t get slow, but it seemed like it wasn’t falling into place like it was in the first half. We were faced with adversity, different looks. We didn’t block them the right way. Didn’t’ correct long passes. Just different things.”
In short, Tech adjusted. Carroll didn’t.
It’s part of the reason the Orediggers have wrangled control of the Frontier over the past few seasons. Coach Chuck Morrell has found the players and schemes, adjusting on the micro level during games, to win ball games. Yes, it helps to have very talented players, but Carroll coach Mike Van Diest and Morrell said similar things during postgame: Tech changed up better.
“They couldn’t run the football in the first half and they made some good adjustments,” Van Diest said. “Obviously, I didn’t make the adjustments in the second half and they run the football pretty good the second half.”
“I’ll give Carroll some credit, they formationed us a bit on defense, got us with a couple new plays,” Morrell said. “In the second half I said let our training take over. We came into this game well-conditioned. Our offense is a juggernaut, once they get rolling they’re hard to hang with. Our guys showed mental toughness and resolve going into the second half.”
One game doesn’t guarantee Tech wins a championship, and Carroll stumbles to another 4-6 season. Nearly the exact opposite. Carroll has another nine opportunities to compete. Tech still has to run through a difficult Frontier and stay healthy should it make another playoff run.
And this Carroll team is certainly different than last year’s.
“They have some offensive weapons; obviously, Eric Dawson is a threat,” Morrell said. “I just felt like our depth was able to mix up the looks and give them some different things. We’re obviously very, very pleased to come out on top.”
Yet, the game shows Tech is still the class of the conference, and Carroll has to improve in multiple phases to dethrone the Orediggers. Tech reloaded after the loss of All-American running back Nolan Saraceni, and didn’t show a weakness on Thursday night. McQueary only took one legal hit. The Orediggers' lone mistake was a muffed punt -- which was more of a brilliant kick from Saints punter Dylan Torgerson and less of a fault by the return man.
Carroll’s defense did not play well enough. Not in Van Diest’s eyes. Even if Tech could hold the top offense in the league -- though it’s still too early to tell -- Van Diest said watching his defense get scored on four straight possessions in the second half was tough.
“Our problem was our defense couldn’t get off the field,” he said. “We let them score on four straight possessions. It put us behind the 8-ball right off the start. In the second half they got more pressure on us. We didn’t make the right reads throwing the football. Defensively, we’re the ones that put ourselves in the hole.
“To give up 24 points in the second half defensively is the discouraging part. I thought we played well in the first half except for two long plays.”
There were positives. Dawson, who scored twice, is healthy. Ryan Walsh, who also scored, is healthy. The offensive line created running space in the first half before receding in the second. Gustavsen showed his legs are a viable weapon.
There were negatives. Gustavsen grew frustrated in the second half, missing reads and throws while taking a ton of pressure from Tech’s pass rush. The defense couldn’t jar Tech’s offense. Key defenders took some lumps.
And in the end, No. 6 Montana Tech took care of business, and Carroll took another L.