When Carroll faces Western (4-5, 4-4) this weekend, it will have a chance to do something it hasn’t done since 2014: Win three consecutive games.
The Saints haven’t put together a winning streak beyond two games in three years since their 10-2 season in 2014. Carroll (3-5) strung together its last two against Rocky Mountain College, avenging an earlier loss to the Battlin’ Bears, and a walloping of Montana State-Northern.
A big part of the Saints' recent success has started on defense. The defensive line, in particular, has commanded attention and freed up linebackers to start making plays. Coach Mike Van Diest said Alec Basterrechea, David Petersen, Cole Greff and Co. have been a critical component for the Saints’ defensive resurgence in the last four weeks.
“Those guys have been a great job up front,” Van Diest said.
It took some time for it all to meld together, but now the Saints are marching. The defensive line had a steep learning curve after defensive end, and really the heart of the defense, Beaugh Meyer went down for the season. Payton Sexe’s movement from in and out of the lineup also meant other Saints had to step up. Van Diest has been pleasantly surprised by his crew.
“Greff and Petersen stepping up has helped (Basterrechea),” Van Diest said. “We didn’t know know what we were going to get. You move Greff from defensive end to nose guard. Petersen had talent but we didn't know he was going to be this good this early. He’s responded well."
Van Diest said last year’s defensive line featuring Meyer, Basterrechea and Kyle Smith was one of the best groups that had ever come through Carroll. Basterrechea is the lone holdover at this point in the season.
“When you lose Beaugh on the heels of Kyle Smith graduating, you’re down two-thirds of your formidable front,” Van Diest said. “They’re not going to replace Beaugh. He’s one of the best we’ve ever had. By committee, coach (Alex) Kastens has done a good job with them. They’ve taken everything we’ve thrown at them.”
That committee helped Carroll hold Rocky Mountain College to three points, and then hold MSU-Northern to 97 total yards. None of the Saints’ defensive members have eye-popping stats, but as a unit, the Saints’ defense has been night-and-day better than they were in the first four weeks of the season. The Saints had not played a consistent game, but they discovered something in the second half against Southern Oregon. That something has manifested into wins the last few weeks.
Carroll’s defense will be tested by a hot-and-cold Western offense. The Bulldogs like to pound the ball with Hunter Thomsen, a back Van Diest called the toughest in the conference. Thomsen has 193 rushes for 858 yards this season and three touchdowns. Bennett Gibson has come in as quarterback after an injury to J.D. Ferris and earned national player of the week honors for his play. Gibson has the capability to throw for huge chunks of yards and touchdowns, but also can be turnover prone, as was the case when the Bulldogs fell 44-19 to Southern Oregon. Which version of the Bulldogs shows up on Saturday will matter a great deal.
“They’re like a lot of teams that are using tight ends in the back field or h-back or splitting those tight ends out,” Van Diest said. “You really, as a defense, you can't use your sub packages as much as you like to. Teams aren’t going to four webouts like they use to be in the Frontier. In the old days, you could take a linebacker out and put a DB in. You have to pick and choose when you do that now. They can spread you out with their tight end or they can come back in the box and be a run offense formation. We have to be ready to do that. I think our 3-4 defense over the last month has done a good job of that.”
The game will also be Senior Day at Nelson Stadium. The Saints will honor their 14 seniors with a ceremony before the game.