HELENA (AP) – The Carroll College football team advanced to the NAIA national championship game for the fifth time in six years with a 23-7 victory over St. Francis Saturday.
Carroll trailed by a touchdown early and had to settle for three field goals in the first half, but moved the ball on the frozen ground while holding No. 5 St. Francis (11-2) to 87 yards rushing, 189 below their season average.
“The bottom line is they’re tough to run against,” said St. Francis coach Kevin Donley, whose teams have lost four postseason games against the Saints in the past five years, including the 2004 and 2005 national championships.
The second-ranked Saints (14-0), who won national titles from 2002-2005, will play the winner of Sunday’s game between top ranked and defending national champion Sioux Falls (12-0) and Missouri Valley. The game was to have been played Saturday, but was postponed due to a winter storm in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Gabe Le rushed for a career-high 154 yards — 103 above his average — John Barnett passed for one touchdown and sneaked in for another and Marcus Miller kicked three field goals and two extra points for the Saints.
“The key was our guys running the football and stopping their run,” said Carroll coach Mike Van Diest. “Gabe Le has just been phenomenal. He made all the right cuts.”
St. Francis scored first, after Miller missed a 45-yard field goal attempt into the wind. On the next play, Jeff Wedding and Bo Thompson connected on a 72-yard pass play to give St. Francis a 7-0 lead just five minutes into the game.
Carroll had to settle for field goals on its next three possessions. Miller kicked a 24-yard field goal in the first quarter and added two 27-yarders in the second quarter to give the Saints a 9-7 lead.
“You don’t want those to come back and bite you,” said Van Diest of the field goals. “We knew we could move the football,” but added, “you’re still one play from being behind.”
A snap went over the head of Carroll punter Zach Thirty with five minutes left in the half. He recovered the ball at the Saints’ 30 and Carroll held St. Francis to a four-and-out on the ensuing possession.
Carroll broke the game open when Barnett sneaked into the end zone on a quarterback keeper, giving the Saints a 16-7 lead midway through the third quarter. The key play in the drive was a 21-yard pass from Barnett to Travis Browne, who went out of bounds at the St. Francis 4.
That score held until Carroll’s first drive of the fourth quarter, which started on the Saints’ 13. On a third-and-11 play from their own 35, Barnett connected with Brian Sloan on a 65-yard pass play to put the Saints up 23-7 with 10:43 remaining.
“It feels good to sit back there and watch Brian run,” said Le, who was surprised when he was told he had 39 carries. “The running game is all about the o-line. The o-line was giving me those little creases.”
St. Francis fumbled on its next possession. Carroll was forced to punt on its next drive, but Shawn Holland down the ball at the St. Francis 2 with 6:31 remaining.
The Cougars drove to the Carroll 20 but turned the ball over on downs with an incomplete pass on a fourth-and-4 play with 3:30 remaining.
Wedding completed 14 of 28 passes for 166 yards for St. Francis while Taylor Vieck had five carries for 34 yards. Barnett completed 14 of 24 passes for 177 yards after suffering a ruptured bursar sac in his right elbow when he was sacked by Carl Thomas on the second play of the game. Sloan had two catches for 75 yards.
The Cougars struggled with dropped passes and Nick Milodragovich intercepted Wedding in the first quarter. Thompson fumbled twice in the second half, with a force by Rick Young and a recovery by Phil Lenoue in the third quarter and a force and recovery by Miller with just under 10 minutes remaining in the game.
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