The TO that wasn't; the two points that were

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Erik Knaack scored on a deep bomb down the middle in the first half as Central roard out to its big lead.
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By Brian Lester

Running down the sideline, Jeff McMartin made an all-out effort to call a timeout. He needed one after noticing Central didn’t get the look from Wartburg’s defense that it was expecting to see as it lined up for a two-point conversion in overtime.

Quarterback Blaine Hawkins could faintly hear his coach calling for time, but he was already in the process of clapping his hands for the snap on the play in this pivotal American Rivers Conference showdown Saturday.

At that point, on a crazy day where Central let a 42-14 halftime lead slip away and now trailed 56-55, McMartin accepted the play for what it was going to be.

“I was running down the sideline yelling timeout, and when the ball was snapped, I thought to myself that this is just what it’s going to be. That’s just how the whole second half had gone. It wasn’t a defeatist thing. It was just one of those things where it was in their hands.”

With offensive linemen split out wide on both sides of the field, Hawkins took the shotgun snap and fired a low pass to the left side of the field, connecting with Hunter Robinson, who stretched across the goal line for the win.

Hawkins believed from the get-go that it was going to work. It was a play they had worked on in practice during the week, after all.

“There was no hesitation,” Hawkins said. “It was a play we visualized going into the weekend. It wasn’t something that came as a surprise to us. It was really exciting to execute it in a game.”

Hawkins said if the timeout attempt had been made just a second sooner, he might have not snapped it.

“Luckily it worked out. We got into the end zone. I don’t think the coaches worried about it at that point,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins never had any doubt that Robinson wouldn’t catch it. The catch set off a wild celebration on the field.

As he looks back on it now, he said there’s no doubt it was the right call to make in that moment.

“It’s one of the greatest feelings I’ve had,” Hawkins said. “I think in that situation, when you have a chance to win a game like that, you have to take it, especially when you feel momentum is not on your side. Even if we hadn’t made it, I think we would have looked back on it and said it was the right decision to go for the win.”

McMartin never imagined the game would play out the way it did considering the lead the Dutch had at the half.

But he's been around the game long enough to know that sometimes the unthinkable happens.

"I didn't envision the second half going the way it did, but if you do this long enough, things are going to happen," McMartin said. "I have gotten to the point where I accept on Saturdays that we can win the game or we can lose it, and I'm okay with that. I don't think about winning or losing once the game starts. I'm focused on the next play or the situation."

Rolling the dice on a conversion attempt isn't new to McMartin.

He went for it in a game a few years ago against Whitworth on the road and it translated to a 50-49 win. Back in 2005, he said his team tried one against Augustana and it paid off with a 25-24 victory.

It comes with the territory of coaching a team to be unfazed by pressure-packed moments. It’s why the Dutch were able to survive despite everything that went wrong in the second half against the Knights.

“One thing we talk about is playing each play and be unfazed by everything,” McMartin said. “When things don’t go our way, we just play the next play. This game was a case study in that. As disappointed as we were in the moment, we kept reloading and kept battling. There was the belief we were going to find a way to pull this thing out.”

Hawkins certainly believed. He said the willingness to take a gamble in a big game speaks volumes about the team.

“It shows the experience we have on this team,” Hawkins said. “We’ve played in a lot of close games and have been in situations where things don’t always go our way. But if you keep believing in each other, eventually guys make plays and things go the right way. We didn’t panic (Saturday). Wartburg is a good team. We knew they would make plays. We just had to keep responding.”

Hawkins has never been one to not rise to the occasion. In Saturday’s win, he eclipsed the career passing mark at the school, pushing his yard total to 6,199, and the six touchdowns he threw tied his own school record.

Sure, he threw some interceptions, but he never stopped giving less than his best.

“It’s definitely tough when you make some mistakes and it hurts your confidence briefly, but I’m not helping the team if I’m down on myself,” Hawkins said. “I have to flush out the mistakes and move on to the next play and not worry about the last one.”

Central now sits at 8-1 overall and 6-1 in the ARC. A win Saturday gives the Dutch a share of the conference crown and playoff berth for the first time in a decade.

But first, Central must get past Coe, which defeated the Dutch 27-24 in overtime a year ago.

“It’s about us getting ready to play our best, to prepare our team to play with passion, to be focused and to execute to the best of our ability,” McMartin said. “We can’t think about after the game Saturday or Sunday. It doesn’t do us any good. Coe is a really good team and is well coached. It’s going to be a great game and a great challenge.”

Hawkins said he and his teammates are ready for the challenge and thrilled to have a golden opportunity in front of them.

“It’s exciting for us,” Hawkins said. “We haven’t been in this position since I’ve been here. This is what we’ve trained for. One of our goals was a conference championship, and now that we are in that spot, we want to accomplish it. I wouldn’t say it’s pressure. It’s excitement. It’s time to go out and get it.”

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