Three times in the fourth quarter DePauw University (Ind.) challenged the Central College football defense on fourth down Saturday and three times the Dutch answered to preserve a rain-soaked 16-10 come-from-behind triumph.
Overcoming an early 10-0 deficit, a fierce Tigers' defense and some uncharacteristic misadventures in the punting game, Central improved to 2-0 for the second time in three seasons.
The Dutch also had to endure a day-long downpour as Greencastle was drenched with more than five inches of rain in the past 24 hours.
"We showed a lot of grit," coach Jeff McMartin said. "We got put in some tough positions all day but we kept making plays and coming up huge."
It was a statement win for the young Dutch as DePauw (0-1) was among those receiving votes in the d3football.com top 25 poll and returned a veteran squad, particularly on defense, where the Tigers start nine seniors. Last year's squad yielded just 63.7 yards rushing a game, which ranked sixth in Division III, and Central had to scrap for every inch Saturday. The Dutch mustered just 7 rushing yards in the first quarter and 86 for the day. Central failed to get a first down on its first four possessions.
"DePauw's defense played really well," coach Jeff McMartin said. "Their defensive line did a good job up front and they made it hard on us. I give them a lot of credit. They've got a really good front seven."
But Central's defense was equally stingy, surrendering only 78 yards rushing. Sophomore linebacker Drew Smith (Joliet, Ill., West HS) racked up a career-high 17 tackles.
"He was all over the place," McMartin said. "The defense did a nice job up front, winning their gaps and winning their blocks. That funneled some things to him and he made some great plays."
Linebacker Connor Lewin (junior, Stillman Valley, Ill.) had nine stops and a breakup while cornerback Trevor Smith (junior, Audubon) made seven tackles, including six solos, with a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. And strong safety Jordy Borman (junior, Eagan, Minn.), filling in for injured starter Tate Jensen (senior, DeSoto, ADM HS), recorded his fourth interception in two games along with five tackles.
"They all played well," McMartin said. "We had a good pass rush and got some big sacks. Connor Lewin was all over the field, Jordy Borman got another big interception, (Free safety) Collin Erickson (senior, Gilbert, Ariz., Dobson HS) had a great game. Our veteran secondary played like veterans and our young guys grew up a lot."
The Dutch held a slim 292 to 257-yard advantage in total offense.
Central's defensive effort was especially crucial amid the first-quarter Dutch offensive struggles. DePauw capitalized on a short first-quarter Central punt and a 27-yard return to set up a 24-yard scoring pass. A blocked Central punt then gave DePauw another chance inside the 20-yard line but it had to settle for a 32-yard field goal to make it 10-0 with 1:35 left in the first quarter.
The Tigers appeared to be in command, but were shut out the rest of the way as the momentum slowly turned. The Dutch offense sprang to life, starting the second quarter with a 14-play, 66-yard drive and a 22-yard Jon Alberts (junior, Huntley, Ill.) field goal. Central then drove 80 yards in nine plays as quarterback Blaine Hawkins (sophomore, Ankeny) tossed a 21-yard scoring pass to Erik Knaack (sophomore, Reinbeck, Gladbrook-Reinbeck HS) to tie it with 6:02 left in the half.
DePauw had a chance to take a lead into intermission, with a first-and-goal from the Central 2-yard line, but was stymied, then botched a field goal try to leave it 10-10.
Central used the opening possession of the third quarter for the winning score. The Dutch were stopped on the DePauw 4-yard line but opted to take a successful Alberts field goal off the board after a penalty to take another shot. Running back Nathan Fitzgerald (senior, Elkader, Central HS) scooted 2 yards into the end zone on the next play, although the point-after try was blocked.
McMartin said the dicey conditions factored into his decision to void the field goal.
"You're down in there and you've got a chance to score a touchdown in a game like that, you've got to do it," he said.
The Dutch were stopped at the DePauw 34 on their next possession, then could grind out just 17 yards the rest of the game, leaving the outcome up to the defense, which was pushed to its limit. Compounding Central's offensive issues were some execution woes in handling punt snaps in the rain.
"We made it hard on ourselves," McMartin said.
Borman's interception in the end zone squelched one DePauw third-quarter threat and the Tigers had three other second-half drives end in Central territory. A failed fourth-down pass at the DePauw 45 with 44 seconds remaining finally sealed it.
"You hope to not be in those situations, but we ended up handling them really well," McMartin said.
DePauw faced some adversity as well, losing starting quarterback Matt Labus to injury late in the first half. Two Tiger quarterbacks combined to complete 17 of 37 passes for 179 yards and were sacked twice.
Hawkins kept Central's offense churning. Despite being sacked four times, he rushed for a team-high net 48 yards on 28 carries and completed 18 of 29 passes for 206 yards with no interceptions.
Knaack had four catches for 61 yards while Tylor Obermeyer (sophomore, Papillion, Neb., Papillion-La Vista HS) had four receptions for 57 yards and running back Pat Gray (senior, West Des Moines, Waukee HS) had four receptions for 39 yards.
The heavy rains frustrated both squads.
"Every play you've got to make sure you're handling the ball well," McMartin said. "Some of the tough catches are harder to make because a ball on your fingertips might slip through. Your footing isn't as good and you don't cut as well. You've got to go back to things you do well and every play has to be really well executed."
Central finally makes its home season debut next Saturday against Luther College in a 1 p.m. game at Ron and Joyce Schipper Stadium. McMartin is happy to head into American Rivers Conference play with a 2-0 mark after two long road trips with a young club.
"We grew up a lot today," he said.
And for McMartin, who has fond memories of his four seasons as an assistant at DePauw (2000-03), Saturday was an enjoyable rainy day.
"It was a lot of fun to be back," he said. "It was nice to get a win in Greencastle."