Nebraska Wesleyan's 17-0 lead melted in the steamy Schipper Stadium turf as freshman quarterback Blaine Hawkins' (Ankeny) sizzling collegiate debut fueled the Central College football team's offensive eruption in a 52-27 comeback homecoming win over Nebraska Wesleyan Saturday.
The day was not trending well early. Midway through the second quarter, the Dutch (2-2 overall, 1-1 Iowa Conference) were not only down 17, but getting outgained 216 yards to 29. And the Prairie Wolves (0-4 overall, 0-2 conference) controlled the ball for more than 13 of the game's first 16:30, especially alarming on a muggy, 89-degree day.
"It was a concern," coach Jeff McMartin said. "I feel like we had some opportunities on offense and we didn't do anything with them. We couldn't even get a first down. Defensively, we tried some different things but you've got to give that some time and kind of let it sink in and work a little bit.
"We tried to remind our guys that last week, Coe was down (at Nebraska Wesleyan) 14-0, almost the same scenario, and they came back and won. We said we had to just keep playing hard, keep plugging away and we can get back in this game."
Enter Hawkins, who ignited a Dutch offense that outscored Nebraska Wesleyan 52-10 over the final two-and-a-half quarters and exploded for 616 yards total offense, the most by the Dutch since a 626-yard outburst at Loras in 2011.
Hawkins completed 14 of 22 passes for 263 yards and two touchdowns. He also did some surprising damage on the ground, gaining 93 yards on nine carries. His first series netted just eight yards but then the Dutch struck with fury in the final 7 minutes of the half. Hawkins hit S-back Kyle Gritsch (senior, Brooklyn, BGM HS) on a 39-yard pass, allowing Hawkins to run it in from the 1 to get the Dutch on the board with 6:36 left.
Wide receiver Sam Markham (senior, Atlantic) then grabbed a Hawkins toss for a career-long 74-yard TD run to cut the gap to 17-14 with 2:10 remaining. The Dutch got one more shot a minute later at their own 27, and raced downfield. A Markham run penetrated inside the 5-yard line with just 2 seconds remaining. Then Central got a break as two dead-ball penalties advanced the ball to the 1, where starting quarterback Kohle Helle (senior, Guttenberg, Clayton Ridge HS) moved back from receiver to take the snap and leaped over the goal-line for a stunning 21-17 halftime lead.
"That was a very good drive and it was a big penalty, getting it down there on the 1-yard line," McMartin said. "If it would have stayed at the 4, we would have kicked a field goal. But punching that thing in, that was a huge play."
An 84-yard drive, closing with a 38-yard Hawkins scamper, and a 20-yard Donny Groezinger (junior, Sulphur Springs, Texas; Eastland, Ill.) run, got Central a pair of third-quarter touchdowns. Then back-to-back interceptions by outside linebacker Tate O'Tool (sophomore, Fort Dodge, St. Edmond HS) and cornerback Trevor Smith (junior, Audubon) set up a 32-yard Jon Alberts (sophomore, Huntley, Ill.) field goal and a 4-yard Hawkins to Markham TD pass, respectively, to stretch Central's advantage to 45-20 with 14:50 left in the game.
"I was happy to see we got some turnovers," McMartin said. "I hate to dwell on it, but last weekend, we didn't do that and it cost us. Today, I think it definitely helped us."
A 4-yard Groezinger touchdown with 6:58 left finished the scoring.
The comeback was Central's largest since the Dutch rallied from 20 points down for a homecoming victory over Coe in 2002.
Central outgained Nebraska Wesleyan on the ground, 357 yards to 130, while throwing for 263 yards to the Prairie Wolves' 280.
It was a welcome debut for Hawkins.
"This was a good opportunity for him," McMartin said. "He got off to a little shaky start, but overall after that first series, things kind of calmed down. We've got some playmakers on offense and really, what it came down to was to get him calmed down enough that he could get the ball to those guys."
Markham, the 2016 Division III receptions leader, is one of those guys and he had his best day of 2017 with eight catches for 181 yards and two scores. Meanwhile Groezinger rushed for 104 yards on 16 carries with two touchdowns.
Hawkins' 93 rushing yards were a bonus.
"He runs the zone read really well and he scored a touchdown on a zone read," McMartin said. "He's not Kohle Helle, not that style, but he's a smart, crafty runner so when he makes a run, he's very effective. He's a very good football player and he played a little bit bigger than a freshman today."
And it was more than Hawkins.
"I thought the offensive line did a good job of protecting him," McMartin said. "We haven't given up a sack yet this season. I give the offensive line a lot of credit and credit to (offensive coordinator) Ryan Maiuri for putting our players in good positions."
Linebackers Carson Remick (senior, Hillsboro, Mount Pleasant HS), Sam Norgaard (senior, Naperville, Ill., Neuqua Valley HS) and Josh Scheible (senior, Kansas City, Mo., Liberty HS) eachhad eight tackles for the Dutch defense, which limited Nebraska Wesleyan to 10 second-half points. Remick and defensive end Justin Dilks (senior, Mount Pleasant) had 1.5 sacks. The Dutch notched five sacks and seven pass breakups.
Central travels to Indianola next Saturday to tackle Simpson College. Simpson is also 2-2 overall and 1-1 in the league after pulling off a 38-33 road win at Coe College Saturday.