It’s their biggest game of the year.
It’s not the playoffs. It’s not a date against No. 5 Southern Oregon. It’s not even a heated rivalry game against Montana Tech.
No, this regular season finale gives the Saints a chance to improve on two years of finishing 4-6.
When Carroll College travels to La Grande, Oregon, this weekend to take on Eastern Oregon (3-6), it will be a chance for the Saints to close the season on a four-game winning streak and compile a 5-5 record.
With the way the Saints have played in the second half of the season, a road win is a definite possibility. Carroll (4-5) is coming off its most impressive win of the season, racking up 280 yards on Montana Western en route to a 24-15 win. Carroll’s rushing attack enters the last weekend ranked No. 3 in the conference in rushing yards per game with 208 yards a contest.
Carroll’s defense has also resurrected from the dead earlier this season. A few weeks into the season, Carroll was giving up 500 yards and 40 points per game. Now, the Saints give up the fewest yards per game at 343 per game and have the second best scoring defense, allowing 21 points a contest, one point shy of Southern Oregon’s conference-leading D.
“It’s the same kids with the same attitude,” Mike Van Diest said after the Western win. “They just had to pick themselves off the turf at halftime at Southern Oregon. We had 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.”
It certainly looks like the Saints are a different team. While the Saints have handled the top rushers in the conference, Major Ali is continued to build an impressive resume. After his 175 yard outburst against the Bulldogs, Ali is ranked at No. 4 in the conference with 802 yards.
His rushing has taken the burden off redshirt freshman quarterback Reece Hiibel, who entered the starting lineup after senior Tanner Gustavsen went down. Hiibel is averaging 107 yards passing per game.
The Saints offense has done a lot of unique things to keep defenses guessing, including lining up tight end Eric Dawson and wide receiver Troy Arntson in the back field for wildcat carries.
Eastern Oregon brings the No. 4 offense in the Frontier. The Mountaineers rush for about 192 yards per game and throw for another 223, bringing a balance to their offense. The weak point for the Mountaineers has been their defense, which gives up 30 points per game, the sixth mark in the Frontier, and yields 433 yards, also sixth.
Eastern quarterback Kai Quinn is the fourth overall offensive player in the conference, accounting for 272 yards per game. Quinn rushes for 60 yards and throws for 212 yards per contest. He’s thrown for 1,912 yards, 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions this year and rushed for 537 yards and five more scores.
Quinn is the leading rusher for EOU, but the Mountaineers also give John Lesser and Victor Dias a lot of carries. Dias has 90 carries for 530 yards and four scores and Lesser has 93 carries for 397 yards and two scores.
EOU hasn’t been able to stay out of its own way this season. The Mountaineers average 97 penalty yards per game, which is third most in the NAIA.
The last time Carroll and EOU met, the Mountaineers were on their way to a playoff run and a 10-3 season. This year, EOU’s firepower has simmered and defense has taken a big step back. EOU made a run into the semifinals, falling to national title runner-up Baker 45-41.