HELENA — Carroll College football coach Troy Purcell has said many times that he isn’t afraid of playing freshmen.
Looking at the two deep that was released before Saturday’s homecoming game against Montana State Northern, Purcell started redshirt freshman quarterback Devan Bridgewater and true freshman running back Matthew Burgess while offensive lineman Hunter Meacham and defensive back Zach Spiroff got playing time.
“It’s been pretty special with the whole freshman class in general,” Purcell said. “We have some talented kids doing some great things.”
But what might be more impressive is their maturity on third down.
Entering Saturday, the Saints’ offense converted 59 percent of their third down conversions.
When asked about it following a 54-26 win, Purcell kind of groaned because the offense only made six of its 13 attempts.
“I wanted (a higher percentage) than that,” Purcell said. “Fifty-nine percent is unbelievable for third-down production, but hat’s off to the Northern coaching staff. They didn’t do what we thought they were going to do on third downs. A lot of our stuff that we were going to run had mesh concepts and route concepts where we were anticipating more man to man.”
Even though Carroll converted just 46 percent of its third downs this week, it has converted 25-of-45 (55 percent) attempts this season, good enough to be tied for second best in the nation with fellow Frontier Conference school the College of Idaho.
Morningside College (Iowa) holds the top stop, converting 64 percent of its third downs.
“Anything over 50 percent is really good,” Purcell said. “I think the national average was 48 percent a few years ago when I looked it up. I’m pretty happy about that. We work on it all the time.”
Last season, Carroll converted just 39.2 percent of its third downs.
Tony Collins emerges
Sophomore tight end Tony Collins didn’t play much last season. But already in 2019, he has four touchdowns receptions.
He was situated behind all-conference senior Eric Dawson but appeared in five games where he caught five passes for 33 yards. He also scored his only touchdown against Rocky Mountain at Nelson Stadium.
This year has been a different story.
The Fort Worth, Texas native leads the team after quadrupling last season’s touchdown total, including two against Northern.
“He is an athletic individual,” Purcell said. “He has a personality to him and he is explosive when he gets out on the field. He is exciting to watch and he’s a competitor. He wants to go out and win.”
And he doesn’t exactly need to find the end zone to be successful.
“He wants to help his brothers as much as he can,” Purcell said. “I think he is just as happy if he scores or if he helps (Matthew) Burgess score and he got the block for it. That’s what is fun. That is the reason these kids come to practice and want to see their teammates do well.”
Collins was the second player committing in Carroll’s 2018 recruiting class and graduated from Southwest High School where he was a tight end and defensive back.
Saints pull off successful onside kick
With just under six minutes left in the first quarter, Bridgewater found Collins to put Carroll ahead 14-0.
On the ensuing kickoff, Purcell made a decision that caught Northern off guard.
He went for an onside kick and recovered the ball.
“How they were lined up, (linebackers) coach Randy Bandelow and I saw that we could just chip the ball over to the side and have an opportunity,” Purcell said. “I gave the signal to make this thing happen and Stephen Powell has been working on it all week. He’s left-footed, so he was the right guy for the job.”
Carroll didn’t capitalize on the recovered kick after it was forced to punt three plays later, but Purcell said it didn’t hurt in any way.