Despite what some people might say, there is such a thing as a moral victory in football.
As a Bears fan, that is pretty much all I have.
A moral victory is what one Montana Tech fan was trying to claim following the No. 20 Orediggers’ 17-14 heartbreaking loss to No. 2 Carroll College Nov. 10, 2007 at Nelson Stadium in Helena.
“That right there is a win for us,” the guy repeated to anyone who would listen inside the men’s room at the Carroll College P.E. Center following the game. “That right there was a win.”
This time, though, that guy was wrong. Dead wrong. (Click here for the podcast verso of this column.)
I shook my head in disbelief. I could not register how an Oredigger fan could be happy about what we all just witnessed.
As he sat on the floor outside the visiting locker room, Montana Tech coach Bob Green certainly disagreed with the enthusiastic fan, who I believe was a father of a Tech player.
“It was a football game that we had in hand, but Carroll made some good plays,” a dejected Green said, leaning back against the wall and struggling to find words.
Yes, Green, a man known for his comical one-liners and his up-beat attitude, was almost speechless. I would not say that he was crying, but his eyes were watery, and he looked like he had just had his heart ripped out.
Green and the Orediggers were just victimized by Marcus Miller, Oredigger Killer.
Montana Tech dominated the Saints in that game. I mean dominated. The Orediggers racked up 417 yards to Carroll’s 93. Tech picked up 23 first downs, and Carroll got just four.
If you looked at every statistic except the final score, you would think the Orediggers won 70-0.
Tech’s offense was humming like never before. It was like a dream for Oredigger fans.
Miller, though, turned that dream into a nightmare.
The Spokane, Washington native returned two interceptions for touchdowns. He kicked the extra point after each pick six, and then he booted the game-winning field goal — accounting for all 17 Carroll College points.
It was a highly improbable outcome for a rivalry that had seen it all.
“That’s what happens when we play Tech every year,” Miller told me after the game. “It’s just crazy. You’ve got to find a way to win.”
Coach Mike Van Diest’s Saints always seemed to find a way to win.
Carroll completed the regular season with an 11-0 record on its way to another national championship. This one, which got the Saints pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, was Carroll’s fifth in six years.
The Saints won six national titles in the decade.
Tech, on the other hand, saw its four-game winning streak snapped, and the Orediggers missed the playoffs with a 7-4 record.
A win would have surely sent the Orediggers to the postseason, where they seemed primed to do some real damage.
The Tech-Carroll rivalry is, in my eyes, still the best rivalry in the NAIA. In 2007, there was no other rivalry that was even close. Well, maybe the Montana Tech-Montana Western rivalry was close.
That November Saturday saw the Orediggers play an inspired game. It was set up like a storybook straight out of Hollywood.
Two weeks earlier, Mariah McCarthy, a 14-year-old Butte girl, was killed by an underage drunk driver while she walked with her friends. Her father, Leo, was, and still his, a huge Montana Tech booster.
One of the last things Mariah did on this world was cheer on the Orediggers in a Senior Day win over Montana Western.
Oredigger senior defensive lineman Kyle Carter, who went on to marry Butte Central star Quinn Peoples, arranged for the Orediggers to wear angel stickers on their helmets to honor Mariah and her family.
“I figured it would be a good thing for Leo because Leo is always there for us,” Carter told me as the loss was starting to sink in.
With Leo McCarthy on the Oredigger sideline, it appeared that inspiration would be enough for Tech.
The Orediggers converted 13 of 17 third down situations, including eight of 8 yards or more. They did it against the No. 1 defense in the NAIA, too.
Miller, a defensive back, returned his first pick 32 yards to put Carroll up 7-0. His second touchdown went for 68 yards to tie the game at 14 early in the fourth quarter.
He booted a 23-yard field goal a little more than two minutes later to put the Saints on top for good. Brandon Day picked off a pass and returned it to the Tech 12 to set up the winning score.
Despite throwing three interceptions, Tech quarterback Matt Komac, a Helena native and one of my favorite all-time Orediggers, played one of the best games by a Tech quarterback.
His 28 completions set a school record, and he threw for 317 yards.
Komac, though, did not care. He was not into any kind of moral victories, especially against the Saints.
“Matt Komac feels terrible about what happened, but he’s the guy who made the plays to get us touchdowns,” Green said. “We would not have had the lead without Matt throwing the football the way he did. They hadn’t given up a touchdown all year — not their real defensive guys.”
Komac hit Alex Grevas 11 times for 160 yards. Other Orediggers to catch passes were Casey Kelly, Cale McQueary, Zach Soukup, Justin Hansen and Jason Russell.
McQueary, a Butte High graduate, is still playing football. He is a member of the Idaho Horsemen in an indoor football league.
On the other side of the ball, the Orediggers played their best game, too.
J.J. Perino registered his 14th sack to close his Tech career with a school-record 46 quarterback takedowns.
“We just came out ready to go,” Carter said. “We knew we could beat ’em. It’s just too bad a few plays didn’t go our way.”
It was too bad. In the wake of the McCarthy tragedy, our community was broken. Beating Carroll would not have fixed that, but it would have definitely eased the pain for a little bit.
In a way, it seemed like that tragedy made the loss hurt even more for the Orediggers, who so badly wanted to honor the McCarthy family.
Instead, they settled into the dark offseason full of heartache.
The win led to brighter days for the Saints.
Carroll did not have offensive struggles the rest of the season. Their defense bounced back, too, and the Saints beat Sioux Falls and defensive coordinator Chuck Morrell 17-9 in a muddy national championship game tilt in Savannah, Tennessee.
Morrell, of course, went on to replace Green after the Oredigger legend retired following the 2010 season. Morrell is now the co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach at the University of Washington.
Morrell led the Orediggers to better days at Nelson Stadium, which has been mostly a house of horrors for the Orediggers since it opened two decades ago.
In 2015, Morrell’s Orediggers beat Carroll 42-7 in Helena. Nolan Saraceni scored on a 99-yard touchdown run to highlight that blowout win.
That, as Green says, was a great day to be an Oredigger.
Indeed, it was.
But there is no way that it took the sting out of the Marcus Miller Oredigger Killer Game. Nothing will.
That was one of the toughest losses you will ever see.
While it was perhaps the pinnacle of a career that ended with Miller being inducted into the Saints Athletic Hall of Fame in 2019, it was a gut punch to the Orediggers.
Everybody associated with the Orediggers was crushed, with the exception of one strangely happy guy in the men’s room.
— Bill Foley, who is not a member of the Saints Athletic Hall of Fame, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74.
Bring a cornhusker fan I am starting to learn a lot about football! What coach was it that said “you learn a lot more from a loss than you do from a victory!!!!!”