HELENA — Carroll redshirt sophomore quarterback Devan Bridgewater found his junior tight end Tony Collins over the middle to pick up a third down conversion with under two minutes left to solidify a 14-12 win in Frontier Conference football over Rocky Mountain College on Saturday afternoon at Herb Klindt Field in Billings.
“That was huge, [we] tried to get them to jump...Either you win the game right there or make that play and continue the drive and put it away or you gotta punt it away and you’re holding your breath,” Saints head coach Troy Purcell said.
It is the Saints’ first win of what is scheduled to be a four-game spring season, brought on as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Carroll led by at least two possessions for much of the second half after taking a 14-2 lead into halftime, but a 95-yard pass from Rocky's Drew Korf to sophomore wide receiver Donavan Sellgren tightened things up midway through the fourth quarter and gave the Battlin’ Bears life down the stretch.
An Ethan Hurst sack to force a Carroll punt switched the momentum firmly back in Rocky's direction, but the offense sputtered and punted away with less than three minutes left to set-up the Saints’ final possession.
Save for the long touchdown pass, the Battlin’ Bears could not find much offensive rhythm in a game that saw their starting quarterback, Nate Dick, leave with an injury before halftime. Rocky coach Chris Stutzriem said Dick suffered a foot injury, which would be evaluated over the next couple of days.
Korf, however, finished with over 200 yards through the air and led a 10-play drive that ended in a field goal, giving the Battlin’ Bears their first offensive points off the game after a Carroll safety put them on the board in the first quarter.
Trailing by a pair early, Carroll responded with two touchdown passes from Bridgewater. A 13-yard scoring strike to sophomore Jaden Harrison was set up after the Saints’ defense established a short field with a fumble recovery.
Redshirt junior TJ Abraham jumped on the loose ball for the recovery, giving him both of Carroll’s two forced turnovers after he picked off Dick on Rocky's first offensive drive.
“That was awesome,” Purcell said of the fumble. “Short fields, offenses really like that. Hats off to TJ, love the kid. He’s a fireball. He’s not very big, but he’s fast, athletic and tough. Really happy for him. Somebody had to strip it to get the fumble, but TJ was there to pick it up.”
A 40-plus yard run by sophomore running back Matt Burgess put Carroll in great shape for its second scoring opportunity of the evening, and he capped it off with a 10-yard receiving touchdown.
In a game where the number of punts rivaled total first downs, sophomore Brock Paldi filled an important role for the Saints. On four consecutive occasions in the fourth quarter, Carroll pinned Rocky Mountain within its own 10-yard line with special teams play.
While the Battlin’ Bears traversed the full length of the field in two plays late, their offense largely struggled to move the football backed up deep in their own territory. Carroll even got some special-teams help from Bridgewater, who chipped a couple pooch punts to accompany his two touchdown passes.
“[Paldi] boomed quite a few of them and made some good stuff happen, even the quarterback had a little pooch kick to get them down to the 1-yard line,” Purcell said. “The kick off coverage team worked real well, kickoff return didn’t gel quite as well as I wanted it to. Overall, team effort. We got a lot of improvement to do, but it’s hard to get a win in college football.”
When Rocky did get in the red zone, Carroll’s defense stiffened, forcing a turnover and sacking Korf to push the Battlin’ Bears out of field goal range.
"I thought our guys played extremely hard. I thought they showed resilience. It wasn't how we wanted to play the whole game," Stutzriem said. "Our defense played extremely well; to hold a team to 14 points I was really proud of them. Offensively, we shot ourselves in the foot too much whether it was a turnover, a penalty or busted play.
"We'll get back to the drawing board and go from there."
Held out of the end zone in the second half, the Saints and their defense did just enough on Saturday to ensure Carroll would walk away with the victory.
“Find a way to win,” Purcell said. “We had a little [problem] with the snap at the beginning that cost us a little bit and then we got a few scores on offense in the first half. In the second half, I thought the defense played extremely well, bent but didn't break. [Rocky] got a few big plays here and there, but once they got into the red zone, [the defense] shut them down.”
Carroll is scheduled to be back in action on Saturday against Eastern Oregon on the road with a 2 p.m. kick off. Rocky gets College of Idaho on the road next weekend in what will be its first road contest of the 2021 spring season.
While disappointed with the loss, Stutzriem said it was good to get back on the field.
"It was great to play against somebody else and a lot of fun," he said. "I wish the score was a little different, but again it was good to get a Saturday afternoon feel and we had a beautiful day."