By Bill Foley
HELENA — J.T. Linder was worth the wait for Carroll College.
Starting his first football game since leading the Dillon Beavers to the 2011 Class A state championship game, Linder led the No. 22 Saints to a gut-punching 27-24 come-from-behind win over No. 7 Montana Tech Saturday at Nelson Stadium. Stats
Linder threw fourth quarter touchdown passes to Connor Fohn and Kyle Griffith as the Saints erased a 24-10 deficit. Then Colter Hamel booted a 45-yard field as time expired, sending the noisy Carroll crowd into a tizzy.
The win stopped a two-game skid to the Orediggers for Carroll, which is trying to bounce back from a rare losing season in 2015. The game was the season opener for both teams.
“Man, guys were just selling out, I think, for this game,” Linder said during the celebration following Hamel’s game-winning boot. “We really wanted it.”
The victory is an instant classic for the Saints and incredible heartbreaker for the Orediggers, who looked primed to win their third straight game in the heated rivalry.
After the Saints scored to tie the game at 10 late in the third quarter, the Orediggers scored two quick touchdowns to take a 24-10 lead in the fourth.
Quinn McQueary hit Dion Williams over the middle for a 32-yard touchdown pass. Williams dove into the end zone for the score to put Tech up 17-10 with 11 minutes, 53 seconds left in the game.
The Orediggers forced a Fohn fumble on the kickoff, and Eddie Smith recovered to give Tech the ball at the Carroll 28. Four plays later, Nolan Saraceni was in the end zone on his second 3-yard scoring run of the game, making it a 14-point game with 9:36 left on the clock.
The Tech celebration didn’t last long.
On the next play from scrimmage, Linder showed off his arm strength by hitting Fohn over the middle for an 80-yard touchdown.
“That was an incredible throw,” Montana Tech coach Chuck Morrell said. “That was 60 yards in flight. The corner was a little out of position on it, but that was a big-time play.”
The Saints forced a three and out, and the Oredigger defense looked like it killed the Carroll momentum when Luke Benz recovered a fumble at the Carroll 43 following a sack.
The Orediggers drove to the 25-yard line, where McQueary’s pass on fourth and seven fell incomplete.
Five plays later, the game was tied.
Linder hit a diving Griffith for a 27-yard touchdown to tie the game at 24 with 2:12 on the clock. The incredible catch wasn’t even Griffith’s best snag of the drive. He made a how-did-he-do-that catch on the sideline for a 17-yard gain three plays earlier.
“Oh, he’s amazing,” Linder said of the receiver who missed the 2015 season with an injury. “He’s tough as nails, too. You could see he took a couple of shots and he was still in there running routs. Unreal. I don’t know how he does it. I love that kid.”
Another three and out by Tech — and another drive hampered by a penalty — and the Orediggers were forced to punt.
Carroll took over on its own 24 with 38 ticks left on the clock.
Linder completed three passes, the last one a 15-yard strike to Griffith to the 28.
The Orediggers called a timeout to ice Hamel, and it didn’t work. The senior had more than enough leg for the victory.
“We were just making plays,” Linder said. “We had guys in the right spot, and I felt more comfortable back there in the pocket.”
Morrell pointed to a few plays that cost the Orediggers, who felt like they should have put the game away before Linder led the comeback.
“Our expectations are high, and I don’t think we were close to where we I think we can be,” Morrell said. “There’s inexcusable things that happened out there today. It’s just stuff that shouldn’t happen.”
Tech’s first drive of the game stalled on the Carroll 11, and the Orediggers had to settle for a 17-yard field goal.
Tech’s Gunnar Kayser picked off a Linder pass and returned it to the 9, and Tech was in business again.
The Orediggers, though, fumbled a snap on third and goal from the 1, and Carroll’s Ryan Gregory recovered.
The Saints tied the game on a 17-yard field goal by Hamel early in the second quarter, but Tech took a 10-3 lead into halftime after Saraceni, who ran for 116 yards, scored on a short run that was set up by a leaping Williams catch for a 27-yard gain on third and 12.
A Tech miscue set up Carroll’s next score, which came with 5:54 left in the third.
A bad snap on a punt led to Tech not being able to get a punt off, giving Carroll the ball on the Oredigger 24. Ryan Walsh busted into the end zone on a 2-yard run four plays later to tie the game at 10.
The Orediggers looked like they would be able to overcome that mistake with the two quick scores. Then Linder found that old magic that made him a legend in Dillon.
“I was a little nervous in the first half, and Tech was doing a great job,” Linder said. “Oh, but man it was awesome for the second half to end like that.”
Linder completed 19 of 3 passes for 330 yards in the win.
“Fohn is just a deep threat for us,” Liinder said, deflecting credit to teammates. “We’ve got Walsh back there and Eric Dawson. We’ve got guys everywhere.”
McQueary passed for 325 yards on 25-for-39 passing. He hit eight different receivers.
Keaton Mitchell caught seven passes for 95 yards, almost all of them coming at big moments. Zach Bunney caught six passes
Fohn racked up 141 yards on six receptions, while Griffith hauled in six for 74.
“He’s a great player,” Morrell said of Griffith. “That doesn’t shock me that he made a play. They made a couple more plays than we did, and they deserve to win the game.”
The Saints play Rocky Mountain College in Billings next week, and Carroll will be looking to build on a potential season-making victory.
“This is what we needed to start out,” Linder said. “We’ve got to build off this and keep that intensity and that excitement going throughout the season.”
The Orediggers will take on MSU-Northern at Alumni Coliseum. It might be too early for the Orediggers to start focusing on that game, however.
“It’s going to be a long weekend,” Morrell said. “I told the guys we’re just going to have to sit in it and deal with it. Then Tuesday we’ll dust it off and go.”
The Orediggers and Saints will meet again Oct. 15 in Butte.
“Tech is an amazing team, and we’ll see them again in October,” Linder said. “It will be exciting to get another matchup with them.”