Did Saturday's football showdown between Rocky Mountain College and Carroll College live up to the hype as the NAIA's national game of the week?
In many ways, yes.
Tailback Dustin Rinker scored the go-ahead touchdown late in the third quarter, and the Saints' defense came up with two big fourth-quarter stands as No. 4 Carroll fought off the No. 19 Battlin' Bears 24-17 in front of a huge crowd at Herb Klindt Field.
The 205-pound Rinker, displaying great bursts and power, rushed for 169 yards on 28 carries behind a tough offensive line and put Carroll ahead for keeps with his 1-yard scoring run with 2:38 left in third quarter.
Neither team scored in the fourth quarter, but the Saints needed timely sacks by end Bryan Graupmann and linebacker Daniel Simmons to quell one Rocky drive and, on the ensuing possession, the Bears, under duress again from Carroll, also failed to convert on a fourth-and-1 play from the Saints' 7 in the final minutes.
"Rocky came out, man, and they played hard," Rinker said. "We were butting heads the whole game. It was back-and-forth and just kudos to our O-line and the coaching staff for making the right decisions.
"It was a really grind-it-out game. We had to give it our best shot to get the W."
Both Carroll and Rocky came into the Frontier Conference game with 3-0 records. The Bears had beaten the Saints, 31-28, during a clash in Billings last November and were looking for their first back-to-back wins over the Saints since 1999-2000 and first 4-0 start since 1998.
With a crowd of over 4,500 ringing the field on a sunny afternoon, Rocky's Ryan Steska booted a 34-yard field goal as time expired in the first half to tie the game at 17-all.
However, Carroll's fast and furious defense, which entered the game allowing under five points per contest, shut out Rocky in the second half, limiting the Bears to minus-1 rushing yards in the final 30 minutes.
"It was definitely tough," Rocky quarterback Bryce Baker said of challenging Carroll's defense. "They are a terrific football team. We made some errors today that were tough to come back from.
"Against a good football team like that, you know, you just can't make some of the little mistakes that we did. It sucks because our defense played so well. Only scoring 17 points, that's not going to get it done against a good football team. Thankfully we've got them again in Helena (on Nov. 9) and we're going to have to get some revenge on them. But this one hurts right now."
Baker, who completed 30 of 46 passes for 384 yards and two touchdowns, marched the Bears from their own 20 to the Carroll 7, where the Bears faced a fourth-and-1 with 2:33 to play in the game.
After Rocky lined up in its heavy, Kodiak short-yardage formation, Baker wound up running a bootleg left. He was being pursued by a pair of fast-closing Carroll defenders when he elected to forgo the run and attempt a pass into the middle of a crowded end zone, which was incomplete.
"That was all my fault there. I got the play wrong," Baker said afterward. "I guess I wish I could go back, but that's just the way it is."
Carroll got the ball back, picked up a crucial first down on an 8-yard scamper around the left end by quarterback Dakota Stonehouse, and ran out the game's final 2:22.
On Rocky's next-to-last possession, the Bears had a first-and-10 on the Carroll 27, but Graupman had a 17-yard sack. Three plays later, with Rocky looking at a fourth-and-3 from the Carroll 20, Simmons got to Baker for a 15-yard sack.
"It was hard-nosed football, tough, that's how you like it, though," Simmons said. "It was a real close game, and we had to fight for every inch."
Twenty-eight of the game's 41 points were put up on Rocky's new scoreboard during a wild second quarter.
Carroll had taken a 6-0 lead late in the first quarter on a 59-yard scoring run up the middle by Stonehouse on a draw play.
Rocky responded in the second, when a 63-yard pass play between Baker and Jayc Van Zee set the stage for the Bears' first touchdown, a 3-yard pass from Baker to Casey Schaub.
Van Zee bounced off and knocked over a Carroll defensive back in racing down to the Saints' 10 to highlight the four-play, 73-yard drive. Steska's point-after kick made it 7-6 with 6:43 to go before halftime.
Stonehouse and the Saints quickly answered with a 30-yard scoring pass into the corner of the end zone to Anthony Clarke, capping a five-play, 72-yard march. A two-point conversion pass from Stonehouse to a diving Jared Mayernik made it a 14-7 game at the 4:20 mark.
Rocky came right back to tie the game a little more than a minute later when Baker threaded a perfect pass to speedy Andre McCullouch down the sideline for a 64-yard scoring play.
Carroll's Conor Smith followed up with a 25-yard field goal to put the Saints up 17-14. Then Steska's 34-yarder tied the game again for Rocky and brought the half to a close after five consecutive scoring drives by the Bears and Saints.
In what turned out to be Carroll's winning drive late in the third quarter, the Saints went 72 yards on nine plays, with Rinker, who carried five times on the drive, scoring from the 1.
The Bears helped the Saints out with a personal foul and pass interference penalties accounting for 30 yards.
"They're dang good, there's no question about that," Rocky coach Brian Armstrong said of Carroll. "We just made too many mistakes, I think. I could have called a better game probably in the second half. I'd like to have a couple back."
Rocky's McCullough caught seven passes for 152 yards. Linebackers Travis Bertelsen and Josh Johnson had 11 tackles apiece.
Johnson tackled Rinker for a 5-yard loss on a fourth-and-1 play from the Rocky 40 early in the fourth quarter.
"I can't fault our kids' effort," Armstrong said. "The kids on both sides just played their tails off, I thought. We'll be all right, we've just got to keep our heads up and regroup. We've got a big one again next week. We've got to go to Butte (vs. Montana Tech, 1-2), which is a tough place to go get a win. We need to find a way to do that."
Carroll's Stonehouse finished with 144 passing yards and 107 rushing against Rocky. Linebacker Sean Blomquist wound up with a game-high 12 tackles.
"We played very well defensively," Carroll coach Mike Van Diest said. "We bent a few times, but the guys did their jobs. Offensively, we controlled the clock in the second half and I think that was the big difference."
The Saints will play at Eastern Oregon University (0-4) next Saturday.