That changed Saturday afternoon at Nelson Stadium, where the fourth-ranked Saints finally bogged down top-ranked SOU in a 26-20 win. The rivals engaged in an opener that was dictated by defense and special teams until Saints quarterback Mac Roche threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Connor Poulson on fourth down to break a tie with 7:16 remaining.
The Raiders – who won 42-40 in last year’s NAIA quarterfinals at Carroll but have now lost three straight regular-season games in Helena – scored only one offensive touchdown: Melvin Mason‘s 40-yard run up the sideline that made it 7-0 less than three minutes into the game.
Matt Retzlaff broke off a 95-yard kickoff return in the first half and Marcus Montano made a pair of field goals (38 yards, 36 yards) for SOU’s other scores.
The Raiders had scored 30 points or more in 37 of their previous 38 games, and averaged 41 points in three meetings with Carroll in 2014. Their only points of the second half were added on Montano’s field goal that made it 20-20 with 8:30 left in the third quarter.
SOU had a chance to tie or win the game when it obtained possession with 2:37 remaining. Kamerun Smith, who shared time at quarterback with Tanner Trosin, completed a 12-yard pass to Retzlaff and a 22-yarder to Zack Davis to get the Raiders into Carroll territory. But the drive stalled out 30 yards from the end zone as four straight incompletions– including two key drops – ended the game.
Roche, who last year threw just four interceptions, was picked off three times by the Raider defense; Jaylenn Hart, Karrington Jones and Mylz Blake had one apiece. Roche also completed 26 of 42 passes for 266 yards and three TDs.
Smith, contending with slick conditions and a secondary that returned four starters, completed 14 of 36 passes for 213 yards. Davis made seven catches for 85 yards and Retzlaff had four for 83. On the ground, Mason carried 20 times for 112 yards.
SOU was led in tackles by Julius Rucker (14), Isiah Carter (9) and Tyson Cooper (8).
Carroll ended up with a 385-358 advantage in yardage despite being shut out in the first and third quarters.
After Mason gave SOU the initial edge, the Saints finally got on the board when Dylan Green capped a 74-yard drive with a six-yard TD run 30 seconds into the second quarter.
Retzlaff answered with the kickoff return, which was the first of his career for a TD and made possible by a Carroll offsides penalty that forced a re-kick. Jones kept the momentum on SOU’s side with his interception, but Carroll forced a punt and took advantage of a short field as Roche found Eric Dawson for a 20-yard TD pass over the middle.
The Saints forced a fumble on SOU’s ensuing drive, and Roche’s 23-yard pass to Ryan Walsh gave them a 20-14 lead on the very next play with 4:48 left in the half.
The Saints went scoreless on six of their last seven drives after that touchdown, the game-winning TD being the exception. Along with Roche’s struggles, they averaged just 3.3 yards per carry on 36 attempts.
However, SOU’s point total was also its lowest since Oct. 15, 2011 – 42 games ago at Mary Hardin-Baylor.
SOU will make its home debut at 1 p.m. next Saturday against 13th-ranked Eastern Oregon. The rematch with Carroll will be played on Oct. 17 at Raider Stadium.
NOTES: SOU and Carroll have split six games since 2012 and five of them have been decided by less than a touchdown… Trosin, making his SOU debut, completed 2 of 5 passes for 11 yards and rushed five times for 25… Mason moved into third place on SOU’s career rushing TD list with his 24th… The game featured a lightning delay of more than 30 minutes in the middle of Carroll’s go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter… The Saints are now 60-3 at home over the last nine seasons.