LA GRANDE, Ore. — True freshman Spencer Berger pushed aside the pressure to do a job Saturday afternoon.
Win Carroll a football game with a 33-yard field goal with under 30 seconds left to play.
“That’s ballsy, man,” Saints head coach Troy Purcell said of his kicker. “That guy’s clutch. He’s spot on. He did a great job. We relied on him a couple times to make some big kicks and he pulled it off. Very impressive.”
Berger buried the boot – just his third collegiate field goal attempt – to lift the Saints over Eastern Oregon 25-23 for their second victory of the 2022 campaign.
“The biggest thing for me was just focusing on breathing,” Berger said. “During the timeout, I just kinda stepped away from everyone, focused on my breathing and envisioned the kick.”
“Kinda ran through it in my head and made sure to focus on the kick and just take deep breaths and not over pressurize myself.”
It was Berger’s second go-ahead field goal of the final 8:06. The first time around, he nailed a 40-yarder to put the Saints up 20-17.
“Nothing like an easy game to start off [my kicking career at Carroll],” Berger said. “It was good to have those high-pressure situations and convert.”
There was a point when it looked like Berger’s first kick would be enough.
Carroll’s defense came up with a stop – Spiroff’s second pick of the game – and a 40-yard field was all that stood in its way of going up two scores.
Instead, the Saints turned the ball over – their fourth of the contest – and chased the EOU defender as he bolted 62 yards for a scoop-and-score.
Carroll blocked the ensuing extra-point, and Spiroff snatched the ball before it rolled out of bounds to return it over 80 yards for a two-point score.
That sequence turned a three-point Saints edge into a one-point EOU lead.
It was reminiscent of a second-quarter play by Isazah King in 2019 against Montana Tech when the senior turned a potential game-tying kick into a 9-6 Carroll advantage.
“They're definitely game-changers, for sure,” Purcell said. “Great job by Spiroff, great job by [Garrett] Kocab in there, what a beast…I think [Spiroff] ran 10 miles on that play, but he found a way, guys got in front of him and rallied.”
“It was a momentum-killer for [EOU].”
The teams – which were never separated by more than a touchdown all game – exchanged punts before Carroll strung together a 7-play, 54-yard drive to set Berger up for his heroics.
Berger was embraced by his teammates immediately following the kick and again after Carroll finished singing its fight song.
While it was Berger’s first real game winner – high school or college – he attributed his calmness under pressure to the bright lights of multiple state championship games and pitching in big moments for the Billings Scarlets American Legion baseball team.
“Those big moments helped me prepare for this moment – just mentally knowing what to expect from myself and how I can calm myself down and visualize the situation,” Berger said. “Those big moments in the past helped me to get to how I am today with my mentally.”
Carroll all but abandoned the passing game early in the second quarter when quarterback Jack Prka threw his third interception of the game.
A one-two punch of Matthew Burgess and Duncan Kraft – behind an offensive line that was moving EOU defenders around to create big holes – carried the Saints’ offense for much of the day.
It was Chris Akulschin, though, who hauled in a 29-yard dime from Prka that set Carroll up at EOU’s 23 on that final scoring drive.
“They were playing some man coverage, really loading the box, and Chris and Jack just hooked up on that,” Purcell said. “It’s an option [play] for Jack, but it was probably not the primary option we were thinking of, but he does have that option to throw that fade ball.”
Akulschin racked up 73 yards in the win, but Kraft (117) and Burgess (107) each eclipsed 100 yards on the ground, propelling Carroll to 270 total rushing yards at 5.1 yards per carry.
For Burgess, it was his 10th career 100-yard rushing game.
His 63-yard house call in the second quarter knotted the game and gave Carroll’s offense a much-needed spark after three early turnovers.
“It was good to get Burgess back and have that big play,” Purcell said. “Those are demoralizing [to the opponent] when you can get a good play like that. It was good to see Matty B back.”
The Saints attempted an onside kick on the ensuing kick off, didn’t execute, and set EOU up with a short field, which the Mountaineers cashed in on one play later for a 46-yard touchdown.
Berger’s 27-yard kick mid-way through the second quarter trimmed EOU’s advantage to four, and after trailing by a touchdown at halftime, the Saints caught a break when the Mountaineers missed a 43-yard try in the third that would have made it a two-score affair.
Enter Spiroff, the junior out of Helena High, who’s first interception of the game set up a five-yard touchdown plunge by Prka, tying the game early in the fourth.
“They targeted [Spiroff] a little bit in the second half…That’s why he’s started for all these years,” Purcell said of his cornerback. “His leadership and his toughness really came through in that second half.”
Two EOU drives later, it was once again Spiroff who jumped in the way of a Carson Bohning pass, touching off a rash of momentum-grabbing late-game plays.
For the second straight year, Carroll gutted out a one-score victory in La Grande after trailing late.
Bohning finished 20-for-43 through the air for 275 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for a three-yard score in the first quarter.
Multiple times he looked Malachi Spurrier’s way for explosive pass plays, including for a 35-yard hookup in the third quarter.
Spurrier racked up 136 yards and a touchdown on five receptions, but did not have a catch in the fourth quarter.
For the fourth time under Purcell, the Saints entered their third game of the season with a 1-1 record. After Saturday’s result, Carroll is now 3-1 in Game No. 3s with Purcell at the helm.
“Very crazy ball game,” Purcell said. “Any time you go on the road and win in the Frontier Conference – it’s a hard thing to do. Just really impressed with our guys and our coaching staff staying the course and finding a way to win in the fourth quarter.”
At 2-1, the Saints welcome a stretch that features four out of the next five games at home beginning with Southern Oregon on Saturday.