HELENA — In a football game that offered a season’s worth of drama and highlights, Rocky Mountain College wound up losing by a foot.
Redshirt-freshman kicker Conor Smith booted a 38-yard field goal for Carroll College as time expired Saturday afternoon, giving the Saints a thrilling 37-35 come-from-behind victory over the Battlin’ Bears at Nelson Stadium and clinching the Frontier Conference championship in the process.
With a crowd of around 5,000 looking on, Smith split the uprights with his booming kick, prompting screams of joy from the Saints’ fans and celebrations by the Carroll players who raced onto the field to mob him.
“Right when I kicked it, I knew it was going in,” Smith said afterward. “You probably saw, like, I was celebrating with the ball just halfway through the air. It’s just, I’ve never really done anything like this before, so the first time is always the best time.”
Smith’s timing couldn’t have been any better for Carroll during what was a showdown between two of the top teams in the NAIA – the No. 5 Saints and No. 7 Bears.
Carroll scored points on its final four possessions of the first half to lead 31-23 at intermission. Before that, there were four lead changes.
Rocky, which was seeking its first win in Helena since the 2000 season, grabbed its only lead in the second half, 35-34, with 55 seconds to play on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Bryce Baker to Andre McCullouch.
Baker’s two-point conversion pass went off McCullouch’s fingertips in the corner of the end zone, keeping it a one-point spread.
On the ensuing kickoff, Carroll’s elusive Jared Mayernik gave the Saints some hope by running the ball back 52 yards to the Rocky 44.
Saints’ quarterback Dakota Stonehouse then completed a couple of clutch passes to Dylan Simac for a total of 20 yards.
“Jared’s kick return was, of course, the pinnacle part,” Smith said. “Then I knew Doc (Stonehouse) was going to be clutch like he always is. Once I saw Jared’s return, I knew they were going to get me into position.”
On a third-and-4 from the Rocky 24, Stonehouse carried for three more yards to take the clock down to four seconds. That set the stage for Smith’s game-winning kick, which was his third field goal of the day.
“That stings,” Rocky coach Brian Armstrong said, shaking his head after the tough loss.
“It’s definitely a heartbreaker,” Rocky wide receiver Cole Cattelan said. “We played as hard as we could. We left it all out on the field today. We’ll be back, though, that’s for sure.”
While Carroll, 8-1 in conference and 9-1 overall, claimed its 13th league title in 14 years and the automatic berth to the NAIA playoffs that goes with it, Rocky, 6-3 and 7-3, remains a contender for the playoffs if it can win its regular-season finale at Montana State Northern next Saturday.
“I told them I loved them,” Armstrong said, following a huddle with his players on the field. “I told them I was proud of them, and I told them we have to move on.”
In a game that generated 969 yards of offense, running back Dustin Rinker helped Carroll ground and pound its way to a crown-clinching victory by rushing 33 times for 208 yards and a touchdown.
Stonehouse threw for 177 yards and two touchdowns, and also ran for 83 more and another score.
“You could name 50 guys today that had parts of this win,” Carroll coach Mike Van Diest said.
While the Saints gained 311 yards rushing, Rocky countered with Baker, who completed 31 of 46 passes for 394 yards and four touchdowns. Cattelan caught 11 passes for 172 yards and one TD, while McCullouch finished with seven receptions for 125 yards and two scores.
Rocky’s Ryan Steska matched Carroll’s Smith with three field goals.
“They’re as good a football team as we’ve played in the last three or four years,” Van Diest said of the Bears. “They played very hard and they are very talented. It was just one kick either way.”
“It was wild,” Carroll’s Sean Condon, a defensive end from Laurel, said. “Our defense, we played better in the second half, you know, but they torched us pretty good. We don’t take that lightly, but, I mean, at least our offense showed up. We stepped up when we needed to and made big plays and won the game.
“It was crazy. It was the craziest game I’ve ever been a part of.”
Cattelan made four of his catches for 52 yards — including a leaping sideline grab good for 21 yards — during Rocky’s critical, 10-play, 69-yard march for the go-ahead score with under a minute to go.
That drive started after a 20-yard field goal by Smith had put Carroll up 34-29 with 4:42 left.
“Everybody was looking at me, why are you doing that, but you just never know what it’s going to come down to,” Van Diest said of electing to go for the field goal on a fourth-and-3 from the 3-yard line. “Rocky is such a dangerous team.”
Earlier in the fourth quarter, Rocky climbed to within 31-29 on a 3-yard TD pass from Baker to Cattelan. The Bears tried to pass for the two-point conversion, but receiver Ryan Toner, who took a pitch from Baker, was pressured and his wobbly pass was incomplete.
“I’d like to say there were some things we could have done differently, but I think that is shortchanging that other team,” Armstrong said. “So, give all the credit to coach Van Diest, his staff and his players. They did enough to win today.”
For his part, Van Diest said his Saints achieved “a great win” against a Rocky team he called “one of the top three or four teams in the nation.”
However, Armstrong noted “we have a must-win next week” at MSU Northern.
Carroll will play its final game next Saturday at last-place Dickinson State.