The Gustavus football team battled to the end yet couldn't find a way to get into the end zone late in the game, as #14 Wartburg College defeated the Gusties 26-21 on Saturday night in Waverly, Iowa. Wartburg improves to 2-0 with the win, while Gustavus falls to 0-1 to start the year.
"Turnovers can get a team down, and I've seen teams quit in situations like tonight. Our guys didn't" said Head Coach Peter Haugen. "I'm really proud of the way the guys battled. You can fix mistakes but you can't fix a kid's heart, and we showed great heart as a team tonight."
Turnovers, and especially, points off turnovers proved to be the difference in the opener. The Knights turned three Gustavus give-aways – two fumbles and one blocked punt – into 16 points.
"I think we understand that you can't make those kinds of mistakes and expect to beat a team like Wartburg," said Haugen.
It was all Gustavus at the start of the game. The defense epitomized the bend-don't-break philosophy by keeping the Knights off the scoreboard after a missed field goal that finished a 10 play 58-yard drive. Following a pair of three-and-outs by Gustavus then Wartburg, the Gusties took over on their own 14-yard-line. On second down and seven, senior Elliott Herdina (Blooming Prairie, Minn), who returned to the lineup after missing seven games due to injury last season, turned in Gustavus' longest play of the night, catching a slip screen, bouncing it outside and using a series of downfield blocks to go 68 yards down to the Wartburg 15-yard-line. Herdina would finish the game with three catches for 80 yards.
Three plays later, Logan Becker (Easton, Minn.) scampered into the end zone untouched from five yards out on a well-sold inside fake for the opening score of the game. Tom Huepenbecker's (Middleton, Minn.) extra point brought the score to 7-0, as the touchdown capped off a five-play 86-yard drive.
Following another three-and-out by the Wartburg offense, the Gustie offense took the ball down and scored a touchdown to finish a nine-play 76-yard drive. Wide receiver Andre Creighton (St. Paul, Minn.) had 40-yard catch on a deep post to set up the score on the drive. Newcomer Phillip Butler (St. Paul, Minn.) scored the first touchdown of his collegiate career on a three-yard plunge to give the Gusties a 14-0 lead following Huepenbecker's extra point.
The momentum took a shift near the 8:00 minute mark of the second quarter when the Gusties fumbled deep in their own territory, giving the struggling Wartburg offense the ball on the 26-yard-line going in. Two plays later, Dan Stiefel (Sterling Heights, Mich.) hooked up with Curt Hruska (New Hampton, Iowa) on 25-yard touchdown pass that cut the lead to 14-10.
Wartburg took its first lead of the game at 17-14 on its next possession. Logan Ruffridge picked up a key block from his quarterback Steifel to score on a reverse from the 15-yard-line for the go-ahead touchdown with 1:28 left in the half.
The two teams would head into their respective locker rooms with the scoreboard reading 17-14 in favor of Wartburg.
Following an exchange of three-and-outs to start the second half, it was Gustavus' special teams that tilted the momentum back to the Gustie sideline. Senior Brad Kruckeberg (Ellendale, Minn.) hit a lane and made a couple Knights miss for a 30-yard return that put the offense in Wartburg territory. A pass interference penalty on the next play set Phillip Butler up for his second touchdown of the day, this one a 35-yarder in which he burst through the line, making a defender miss on the near sideline before finding a seam and cutting across the field for the touchdown. Butler finished the game with 70 yards on 10 carries (7.0 ypr).
Following a Wartburg punt on the ensuing possession came a disastrous series of events for the Gusties that proved to be the difference in the game. After picking up a first down on an 11-yard run, Becker lost control of the football as he was brought down to the turf, giving the Knights excellent field position at the Gustavus 37-yard-line. Despite having first and goal at the seven-yard-line, the Gustie defense was able to rise to challenge and hold the Knights to just a field goal, holding on to the lead by one point at 21-20.
"I'm really proud of our defense. They had their backs against the wall several times and did a tremendous job stepping up to the challenge. Coach Shea put together a great plan and the guys executed it very well," commented coach Haugen on the play of the defense in the game.
Now with momentum back on their side, the Knights forced a three-and-out and elected to bring the house on the Gustavus punt. It paid off. David Hoehne (Elma, Iowa) broke through the personal protectors, getting a hand on the Huepenbecker punt and Wartburg recovered the block on the eight-yard-line going in. Facing third-and-goal, Steifel connected with Hruska for the second time in the game, this time on a corner route that put the Knights on top 26-21.
Hruska was Steifel's top target of the night, leading all receivers with six catches for 105 yards and two touchdowns. Steifel was 18-for-33 for 253 yards and two touchdowns on the night. Despite being hurried on several occasions, the Gustie pass pressure was unable to sack the senior for the entirety of the contest.
The Hruska touchdown turned out to be the dagger, as the Gustavus offense was unable to move the ball past mid-field in its final three possessions.
The Gusties picked up 14 first downs and 321 yards, 176 rushing and 145 passing, of total offense in the game. Wartburg picked up 17 first downs and gained 369 yards of total offense, 116 on the ground and 253 through the air.
Logan Becker was 10-for-15 for 145 yards through the air, yet was sacked four times and finished with 24 yards rushing. Jeffrey Dubose (St. Paul, Minn.) was Gustavus' leading ball carrier with 78 yards on 12 carries for an average of 6.5 yards per rush.
Defensively, the Gusties were led by Brad Kruckeberg and Todd Kremmin (Cottage Grove, Minn.). Kruckeberg had 8.5 tackles to lead the team, while Kremmin, who provided a constant stream of pressure off the edge, recorded eight, seven of which were solo.
The Gustavus football team will return to Hollingsworth Field next Saturday, Sept. 17 for its home opener against Mayville State University at 1:00 p.m. Mayville State enters with a 2-1 record after picking up wins against Robert Morris College and Trinity Bible College.
"Our seniors did a nice job leading us tonight and I know that they will get the team ready for Mayville next week," said Haugen.