HELENA -- Saturday was about solidifying starters and finding depth for Carroll College.
While that process will ultimately be completed through a film review, coach Mike Van Diest was largely happy with what the Saints did at Nelson Stadium in their lone fall scrimmage.
That said, there’s also always something to improve. And coming off back-to-back 4-6 seasons, Carroll is eager to do just that -- and find itself back in the familiar position of Frontier Conference heavyweight.
“There was some success on both sides of the ball, but there wasn’t a lot of the consistency that we wanted to see,” Van Diest said. “Certainly, the fumble on the goal line, that was something that I wish wouldn’t have happened -- especially with your No. 1 center and No. 1 quarterback. But there were a lot of good things. And like I told the team, we’ve been working on Tech for the last three days. Today was all about Carroll College and our schemes against each other.
“We come back on Monday and it’s all Tech, and we’ve gotta now pare things down to see the players that are going to play on the 31st.”
Tech has supplanted Carroll as the Frontier frontrunner, and enters the season ranked sixth in the Top 25 poll, one spot ahead of Eastern Oregon. Carroll, which is not ranked but is among those receiving votes, will visit Butte for a rare Thursday night contest to open the 2017 campaign.
The Saints will do so with impressive depth on both sides of the ball. Carroll returns eight starters on offense, and will be led by quarterback Tanner Gustavsen -- who played in seven games with four starts a year ago. While he and the established starters got limited work on Saturday, the unit showed it is ready to rebound and put points on the board.
On a drive highlighted by a big run from returning standout Ryan Walsh, Gustavsen put the ball into the hands of a leaping Eric Dawson for a touchdown just minutes into the action. The tight end is back after missing nearly all of last year as a medical redshirt.
Also back are slot receiver Troy Arntson and big-play machine Connor Fohn, along with Walsh and Major Ali in the backfield.
Gustavsen finished a perfect 8 for 8 for 84 yards and a score Saturday. Reese Hiibel went 5 for 9 for 37 yards and a score. Leading the receivers was Dawson, with 2 catches for 28 yards and the touchdown. He was just in front of Shane Sipes, with two catches for 27 yards, and Troy Arntson had 3 grabs for 21. In all, 10 different receivers caught at least one pass.
A newcomer primed to make an immediate impact on the offense is freshman Ryan Arntson. The younger brother of Troy -- this will be the first time the two have ever played on the same team at the same time -- Ryan was among the best high school players in the state his senior season. His vision, patience and speed helped push Helena High to the State AA semifinals.
“Ryan Arntson, from Day 1, I just said, ‘We’re not gonna redshirt him.’ He’s too good,” Van Diest said. “And that’s nothing against the other two running backs, but Ryan Arnston needs to get in the game. And whether it’s 10 carries a game or if he catches the ball out of the backfield, he needs to play.”
He played Saturday, and drew one of the bigger cheers of the day after breaking to the outside and cruising 80 yards untouched for a score. He finished with a game-high 99 yards and the score on eight carries. Ali finished with seven touches for 44 yards and Walsh's day ended with one carry for 30.
He is, Van Diest said, just one more weapon on an offense that will be loaded with them.
“It’s probably the best group we’ve had. (Fohn’s) a game-breaker and he’s gonna draw a lot of attention. But Troy Arntson runs such disciplined routes underneath. And I’ve just been so impressed with Joe Farris and Paul Hart, with what they’ve done this spring and what they’ve done this summer through fall. That gives us four starters there. And now your throw in Eric Dawson, who missed all last year except for the first game … I think we’re back to where we can throw the football and spread the ball out a little bit.”
Big plays weren’t limited to the offensive side of the ball Saturday. Former CMR standout Xavier Pace turned in a pick-six from 30 yards out, Mike Monaco and David Anderson recovered a pair of fumbles, and often had the various quarterbacks getting time scrambling.
Leading the defense will be tackle Beaugh Meyer and end Alec Basterrechea, two of six returning starters.
“Beaugh and Alec are two guys everybody knows. But Peyton Sexe is coming back from injury. David Petersen, I think, has had a very good fall camp coming off his redshirt year from Capital High. Garrett Kocab, the big freshman out of California, is gonna be a great, great player for us. He might play as a freshman.
“And the two (linebackers) inside, (Reece) Quade and (David) Anderson, they’d better be in shape -- because I might not take them off the field.”
Basterrechea had a good day in limited action. He said while the day was about the Saints, for the defense it also served a bit of a dual purpose.
“This kind of gives us a really good look at what we’re going to be playing at Montana Tech,” he said. “Tanner runs the ball a lot like Quinn McQueary does. So it’ll be interesting for us to have that comparison between Tanner’s play and Quinn’s play.
“I think everybody performed very well. There’s some mistakes that are always going to happen in the first scrimmage, but I think offensively and defensively we played pretty sound within the scheme.”
For his part, Gustavsen said he appreciates just how good the Carroll defense is -- because he knows just how tough the Frontier Conference is every week.
“It’s been a while since we’ve gone full speed against our No. 1 defense and our No. 2 defense,” he said. “Our defense did a great job today, and they’re always working us, every practice.”
The unit that has been more down than up over the last two seasons is special teams. More specifically, the kicking game.
The team hasn’t had to worry about punting situations, with Dylan Torgerson booting his way to all-conference honors. Field goals, however, are another story.
If Saturday is any indication, things on that front are looking up.
Of the many kicks attempted, just one was missed -- and that was on a block. Torgerson is handling both punting and kicking duties, but freshman Josh Kraft from Billings Central rotated in and comfortably nailed kick after kick.
“Those two guys have a great competition going at kicking right now,” Van Diest said. “They both, the last two or three days, have been lights out. So I’m pretty pleased with both Josh and Torgey.
“We had a great kick to win the game against Tech last year out here. But I think we made two or three field goals all year, and the year before we made a couple. Now they’ve gotta do it in a live situation when the pressure’s on. They’re both gonna get opportunities and we’re gonna go with the hot hand. We’re not gonna redshirt Josh; he’s shown that he can kick.”