HELENA — In a year where tiebreakers creep into everyone’s mind a little more given the abbreviated four-game conference-only football schedule, keeping opponents off the scoreboard carries extra weight.
If Carroll beats College of Idaho inside Nelson Stadium on Saturday and Eastern Oregon handles Montana State Northern, there will be a three-way tie atop the Frontier Conference standings for the league’s one and only bid to the Football Championship Series. According to a league spokesperson, things would then turn to head-to-head record among tied teams to determine a conference champion, but if things shake out as mentioned above, all three teams would be 1-1 against each other.
That leaves total defensive points allowed in conference games as the tiebreaker and it is a category Carroll holds an advantage in having given up just 47 points through three games. College of Idaho is next with 53 defensive points allowed and Eastern Oregon ranks fourth in the Frontier having allowed 82 points.
First-year coordinator Wes Nurse has helmed a defense that is allowing 342 yards per game to opponents, but ranks inside the top-20 nationally yielding just 15.7 points per contest.
“Yards are always important, too, because the accumulation of yards is going to turn into points at some point,” Nurse said. “So we just gotta keep doing what we’re doing. We’re doing a decent job of getting off the field on third down, would love to improve that. We’re doing a great job in the red zone and just not giving up anything easy. If somebody is going to score, they’re going to have to work for it, which I am appreciative of.”
In the past, Nurse has talked about dictating to the offense, and not letting the opponent determine what Carroll was going to be defensively. Putting the opposition in a bind does nothing but further the defense’s agenda, and stopping the run, according to Nurse, is a big part of that. Entering Saturday, the Saints are giving up just 114 yards per game on the ground, a top-30 mark in the country, while allowing just 3.3 yards per carry.
“I think we’ve done a decent job of making teams do what they don’t want to do more times than not,” Nurse said. “It starts, first and foremost, with stopping the run. We gotta do a great job this week, again, of stopping the run. We can’t let them have easy yards in the run game, and then we gotta do an awesome job getting off the field on third down and then getting takeaways.”
Carroll’s defense has struggled on third down to this point, allowing a 38.6 percent conversion rate, ranking the Saints in the bottom half of the 90 NAIA football teams that have played a game.
Still, Carroll has forced seven turnovers, including one in the red zone against Northern two week ago. Happy with those takeaways, Nurse still believes his defense could have had four additional turnovers if not for drops and things of that nature.
“If you give those offenses more opportunities...they’re going to take advantage of it,” Nurse said. “We gotta do a great job, once we get our hands on the ball -- whether it’s stripping the ball, recovering a fumble or getting an interception -- we gotta get that ball back to the offense so they can go down and score.”
Even before the season started, Nurse was talking about having a defense that could throw multiple looks at an offense during a game. Out of a 3-4 look, Nurse can make coverages look like something they are not by changing the picture that the quarterback sees. All that does, according to Nurse, is put the offense back on its heels and gets the opposition reacting to what Carroll’s defense is doing instead of the other way around.
Nurse said he likes to be unpredictable and switch things up defensively at different points in the ball game. One of the big things Nurse likes to scheme is bringing his outside linebackers up to the line of scrimmage, adding to the three downed linemen already there, and making offenses guess who is coming on pressure once the ball is snapped.
“It gets them pointing,” Nurse said. “Most offenses, like any good offense, will identify guys possibly blitzing or adding to the rush. If we get them identifying somebody else and somebody else is free inside, that gets us one step closer to getting the quarterback.”
Eight times Carroll has taken down a quarterback behind the line of scrimmage and owns a top-30 mark in the NAIA with 2.7 sacks per game while racking up 24.5 tackles for loss as a unit.
Eight different Saints have logged at least 12 tackles, including junior Rex Irby and redshirt freshman Garrett Worden who have also been credited with a combined eight tackles for loss. Redshirt junior TJ Abraham currently paces Carroll with 26 tackles heading into the season’s final regular season game.
“Defense has played really well,” Saints head coach Troy Purcell said. “Bend but not break, they get inside the red zone and we stiffen up and create turnovers and create situations where they don’t get any points on the board. Hats off to the defensive side, they’ve done a great job.”
Carroll only featured two seniors on its defensive two-deep ahead of the Northern game, but six freshmen or redshirt freshmen. For Nurse, that youth only signals that his defense’s best games are somewhere in the future as these players -- many of them first-year starters -- grow up and gain experience.
“The most satisfying thing for us with this whole deal is a lot of these guys are first-year, full-time defensive starters,” Nurse said. “A lot of them have been special teams guys, but this is the first time as defensive starters. Guys are stepping to the plate and doing a great job accepting their role and keeping rolling. The beauty of all this, too, is we get all those guys back in the fall, as well. All we’re going to do is keep getting better each game.”
With just one -- and perhaps the most important -- game remaining on the Saints’ schedule, the difference between Carroll seeing its season end after just four games or the campaign extending into the postseason could very well come down to how well the defense plays.
“It’ll be a great contest on both sides, conference championship on the line,” Purcell said. “You gotta rise up. Big players play in big games and be at your best when your best is needed and we need that on Saturday.”