HELENA – Montana Tech running back Nolan Saraceni made a name for himself at on the Class AA football fields at Billings Senior. He led Class AA in rushing yards (1,291) and all-purpose yards (1,781) during his senior season, despite playing in only eight games.
After competing in the Montana East-West Shrine Game in July of 2013, Saraceni scored his first collegiate touchdown months later at Montana Tech.
Fast forward to 2015 and Saraceni was leading the nation in rushing yards (1,683) and rushing yards per game (153.0) while scampering for 20 touchdowns, good for fifth best in the NAIA.
Saraceni, a powerful runner who typically drags two or three defenders before going to the ground, harassed rival Carroll College last season – 34 total carries for 375 yards and five touchdowns.
“We saw last year at times we balled him up pretty good behind the line of scrimmage. That’s when we had linebackers, defensive backs and safeties staying in their gaps,” said Carroll head coach Mike Van Diest. “When we get hurt is when Saraceni gets out in the open – you can’t catch him. He’s powerful. He breaks tackles. We had guys diving at his legs last year like we were afraid to tackle him.
“He’s a very good football player, as good as we’ve ever seen in this conference. But we have to rally around him, set the edge, have better leverage and then hope guys coming inside-out can support because one guy isn’t going to bring him down.”
Van Diest’s Fighting Saints have made a name for themselves on defense in the past, bottling up the run and not allowing big plays through the air. Saraceni and the Diggers’ offensive line found a way to break that mold in 2015 and Carroll College players remember it well.
“On film he likes to cut back and do some things that we’ve prepared for,” said Saints defensive tackle Kyle Smith. “He runs hard. He’s definitely the hardest running back in the conference. But to be the best you have to beat the best and right now, they’re the best. I have nothing but positive things to say about them.”
Smith and the rest of the Carroll defensive linemen pride themselves in being the first wave of the defense. There’s a respect for Saraceni and the Montana Tech offensive line, but Saturday’s game is a contest the Saints have been looking forward to for nearly a year.
“It’s a big deal. For the team especially, we want to win as a team. But in the den is where the defensive line meets, talks and we do all this,” he said. “We love each other and it’s something we want to accomplish together. We feel like we’re the head of the snake on the defense and it’s up to us to get everyone else going. It’s a huge pride thing because we put it on ourselves.”
Saturday’s kickoff at Carroll’s Nelson Stadium will only add to the history between two rivals. But with the Diggers coming off a Frontier Conference championship and all-American campaign from their star running back, and Carroll prepared to avenge a rare playoff drought, the game may hold more than just a mark in the win-loss column.
“I think the first game is a good indicator of what teams have been preparing for and how bad they want to win,” said Smith. “I think this is a big standard for both of us to see where we’re at.”