HELENA — For the first time since 2014, the Carroll College Fighting Saints are Frontier Conference football champions after downing the College of Idaho Yotes 28-19 on Saturday.
In a game where they were out-gained in total yards, passing yards, and punted twice as many times, the Fighting Saints had a game plan going into the game and they stuck to it.
“Real proud of our coaching staff, it’s never one person,” said Fighting Saints head coach Troy Purcell. “It’s always a group of guys working together and making things happen, and a great group of senior leaders.”
The Yotes were the first team to draw blood in the affair, but Carroll held them to just a field goal after a ferocious goal-line stand.
Carroll struck back with a heavy hand as the Fighting Saints' offense sliced and diced the Yotes' defense ending with a Matt Burgess touchdown from just a few yards out to take a 7-3 lead in the first quarter.
Burgess continued his reign of terror over the Frontier Conference on Saturday, finishing the day with 169 yards and two scores on 32 attempts.
The two teams battled back and forth through most of the first half before the Yotes were able to take their second lead of the game when Connor Richardson took the snap in the Wildcat formation, faked a few Carroll defenders out, and dove to barely break the plane, but it was enough to take a 10-7 lead in the second quarter.
With time winding down in the first half, the Fighting Saints did what they do best: run the two-minute drill.
On fourth and 2, quarterback Devan Bridgewater scrambled until he found Logan Gilliard on the right side for not just the first down, but a gain of more than 20 yards.
Shortly thereafter, Bridgewater found one of his favorite targets in Tony Collins, who sacrificed life and limb to make the grab, setting up Burgess to punch one up the middle again to give the Fighting Saints a 14-10 lead at the half.
Bridgewater was 10-of-16 passing with 113 yards and a touchdown.
With the lead at the half, Fighting Saints players realized they had an opportunity to take down an opponent they haven’t beaten since 2016 with one more half of solid play.
“The whole offense, the last five drives, we’re consistently in the huddle saying, ‘How bad do we want this? How bad do we want this? We've worked so hard. We're in this moment, how bad do we want it?’ And we just kept asking each other that and you can see the look in the guys' eyes every time you said it, they wanted it,” said Bridgewater. “That's what we went out and did. We got it.”
The second half, in theory, should have started much worse for the Fighting Saints. When receiving the ball on the opening kickoff, the ball was muffed leaving the Fighting Saints near their own goal line. Forced to punt it away, the Yotes were in prime position around midfield to take advantage and take the lead yet again.
That didn’t happen, thanks in part to Garrett Worden. Deep in Carroll College territory Yotes quarterback Ryan Hibbs dropped back looking for the end zone, but Worden clobbered the redshirt freshman forcing the Yotes to settle for a field goal and a 14-13 deficit in the third quarter.
For the rest of the game, the Fighting Saints seemed to have set the cruise control with the Yotes comfortably in the distance.
Duncan Kraft found a hole on the left side of the Yotes' defense and took off for a 60-yard touchdown to make it 21-13.
TJ Abraham recorded two interceptions in the second half and nearly had a third toward the end of the game.
Bridgewater slung a pass to Gilliard from about 25 yards out for a touchdown to put Carroll College in control by two possessions at 28-13 with just less than six and a half minutes left to play.
There was a bit of a speed bump along the way. Despite throwing three interceptions on the afternoon, the Yotes never lost faith in their young quarterback as he led a 75-yard drive that ended in a Nick Calzaretta touchdown to make it 28-19 with the point-after try pending.
Calzaretta finished the day with 77 yards on 22 attempts with one touchdown.
Needing just one point to make it a one-possession game, the Yotes looked discombobulated on the point-after attempt and chose to take a delay of game penalty rather than burn a timeout.
That decision would cost them as the Carroll field goal unit stormed the Yotes to block the point after, making it a nine-point game with about three minutes to play.
The Carroll defense stood about as tall as it could the remaining minutes of play, effectively icing the game on a strip-sack of Hibbs that Jake Walk was able to recover.
With the win, the Fighting Saints entered into a three-way tie for first place in the Frontier Conference with the College of Idaho and Eastern Oregon. The tie-breaker: defensive points allowed.
The College of Idaho’s defense let up 81 points.
The Eastern Oregon Mountaineers defense let up 88 points in total.
Carroll College only gave up 66 points across the four games.
With the Frontier Conference title locked up, the Fighting Saints receive an automatic bid into the NAIA national football playoffs. Carroll College will find out what school it will face in the opening round on Sunday.