|Alfred got the madness of the first round started with a closer-than expected opening game vs. Bridgewater State.
Alfred athletics photo by Peter Mangels
By Adam Turer
The opening round of the playoffs brought a whirlwind of walk-offs, as three teams advanced on the final play of the game.
On the flipside, three teams had their otherwise successful seasons end in heartbreak, one play away from continuing their season for another week.
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The craziest part was all three of these defining plays happening in the span of an hour, the (only?) upside to the NCAA scheduling all first-round playoff games for a noon local time kickoff. That meant that Alfred and Bridgewater State completed their overtime while Thomas More and Wittenberg were in the midst of playing four overtimes. Shortly after that game ended, St. John’s defeated UW-Platteville on the final snap of regulation. It was March Madness on the third Saturday in November for Division III football fans.
One ending was controversial, another was surprising, and a third was exhausting.
It appears that we’ll never have conclusive evidence of the ball crossing the plane before Dusty Krueger’s knee hit the ground. The St. John’s running back is confident that he and his linemen did enough to secure the 32-31 victory.
“I think the first surge, I was in. Then we just had to wait for the call. I was hoping they were going to throw their arms up in the air and say I was in,” said Krueger. “There’s a lot of seniors in that group and they wanted to get it in. Our senior offensive line was very adamant that they wanted to run it on that last play. They made a surge and all I had to do was follow them.”
The officials did not make the Johnnies take another snap, and the celebration at Clemens Stadium began as soon as the official’s hands went up to signal touchdown. This was just the latest win in a string of must-wins for the No. 9 team in the country.
“Our guys have been resilient all year. They’ve never given up,” said Johnnies coach Gary Fasching. “We’ve been in this situation for seven straight weeks where we’ve had to win a game to move on. I can’t say enough about the guys on this football team. Our seniors are incredible.”
There was a chess match that led up to the final snap. St. John’s had three or four plays called for the final sequence, after a Will Gillach catch set them up at the 1-yard-line with 10 seconds left and no timeouts. UW-Platteville called all three of its timeouts before the Johnnies ran their second play from the one. Each time the Pioneers called a timeout, the Johnnies changed their play call. Finally, on fourth down, the senior-laden offensive line got its wish.
“I thought we had a good play called,” said Fasching. “Our guys didn’t panic. They stuck right with it. A lot of credit to our offensive line and to Dusty for getting it in the end zone there.”
The offense would not have been in position to make the game-winning play if the defense had not made crucial plays on its end.
“We can’t overlook what the defense did there,” said Fasching. “They were put a couple of times in some really tough spots and they came up with some big stops against the best offensive team we’ve seen all year.”
The offense used up every last second of the game, but was able to capitalize when it needed to most.
|Will Gillach clearly got into the end zone early in the game for St. John's.
Photo by Caleb Williams, d3photography.com
“We had our ups and downs all through the season. Sometimes, we wouldn’t score and our defense would hold us in it,” said Krueger. “It was our turn to make a big play at the end. They’ve done it for us and I just think that we were prepared for it.”
The celebration didn’t last long. Even at the postgame news conference, Fasching’s attention had already turned to his team’s second round opponent.
“I’m already thinking about Oshkosh,” he said. “They know I don’t savor the victories enough, probably.”
Few expected 10-0 Alfred to be locked in a tight battle with 8-2 Bridgewater State. The undefeated champions of the highly regarded Empire 8 were favored to handle the MASCAC champs. Instead, the Bears put up a fight from the beginning until the very last play of the game.
What could make this back-and-forth playoff game even more dramatic? How about a late burst of winter weather that threw both teams for a loop. The temperature dropped nearly 30 degrees from the opening kickoff to the end of the game. Howling winds blew snow sideways as the teams traded leads in the fourth quarter.
Without running back Maleke Fuentes, who missed the game with an injury suffered late in the regular season finale, Tyler Johnson put the Saxons offense on his back. He passed for 176 yards and led the Saxons with 113 rushing yards. Johnson accounted for two touchdowns, including the game-winning rush in overtime.
“Tyler is a veteran leader. Having him out there is like having another coach,” said Rankl. “He’s made a lot of great decisions throughout the year.”
Liam Hobbins came up with two interceptions for the Saxons, including a pick in the end zone to end Bridgewater State’s overtime possession. That put the ball in Johnson’s hands. With the weather as chaotic as it was, Rankl did not want to put the game on the foot of his kicker Trevor Monk, who made two of four field goal attempts in the game.
“There’s no better feeling in overtime than starting on defense and getting an interception,” said Rankl. “That certainly makes you feel better going into the overtime. We wanted to end with a touchdown; we didn’t want to have to rely on kicking the ball.”
The lead changed hands four times. The Bears took a lead into the fourth quarter. After Alfred rallied to score ten straight points, Joe Savignano nailed a 43-yard field goal with 55 seconds to play to even the score. Monk had a chance to win the game in regulation, but his 37-yard attempt in the closing seconds sailed wide.
While Alfred’s defense was on the field for the first overtime possession, Johnson huddled his offense on the sideline. He reminded them to play smart, because overtime games are often lost by stupid penalties or turnovers. After Hobbins delivered the interception, Johnson felt calm and confident. Six plays later, he was in the end zone and the Saxons were on to the second round.
“It was pretty crazy. The crowd was as loud as it gets at Yunevich Stadium,” said Johnson. “It was very exciting to do it in walk-off style.”
By Saturday night, the senior quarterback was already watching video on Western New England.
While Johnson and the Saxons wrapped up a win in one overtime, Wittenberg players lost track of how many extra periods they needed to advance past Thomas More.
The Tigers were one of three teams to earn road wins in the opening round. They also became just the third visiting team to win at BB&T field since the Saints began playing there in 2008.
Both teams featured all-conference kickers who proved why they earned those accolades this season. Saints freshman kicker Cole Mathias made three field goals, including a school-record-tying 47-yarder to force a fourth overtime. Tigers senior kicker Will Gingery was one better, driving home four field goals, including the game-winner in the fourth overtime.
This was the strangest game of the day. Wittenberg opened up a 17-0 lead, frustrating the Saints offense in the first half. A late controversial touchdown catch in the back of the end zone by Logan Winkler — who was initially ruled out of the end zone, but was then ruled in after the officials conferred on the field — got the Saints on the board just before halftime. That score was set up by a short field after Thomas More recovered a Jake Kennedy fumble. The Saints scored 24 unanswered points to take their first lead midway through the fourth quarter. Kennedy bounced back and led his team on a tying drive in the closing minutes. That set the stage for the battle of the kickers.
A 20-30 mile per hour wind was blowing all day long, but the teams played all four extra frames with the wind at their backs. On the very first play of overtime, Kennedy hit running back Deshawn Sarley on a beautifully executed wheel route, setting the Tigers up with a first and goal at the one. An offensive pass interference penalty backed them up 15 yards and Wittenberg settled for a Gingery field goal from 36.
Gingery had made 18 of 22 field goal attempts and all 39 of his point after tries during the regular season. Mathias, meanwhile, was just six-for-10 in the regular season, and missed three of his 47 point after attempts.
But Mathias stepped up and matched Gingery, forcing the second overtime. After Keenan Wilson blocked Mathias’ attempt in the second overtime, the Tigers sideline and fans erupted, feeling confident that Gingery would smoothly deliver the game-winner in the second overtime. The Saints had other plans.
After three Sarley rushes set Gingery up in the middle of the field, he lined up for a 37-yarder. Thomas Williams had other intentions, leaping up and getting a hand on the kick. It was almost comical how evenly matched these teams were all day.
“We knew it was going to come down to one big play or maybe an overtime, so we were kind of prepared for something like this,” said Wittenberg linebacker Jack Kayser.
“Nobody really deserves to lose a game like this one, they really don’t,” said Wittenberg coach Joe Fincham.
Wittenberg again had momentum after Gingery delivered in the third overtime. Brenan Kuntz took a costly sack on third down on Thomas More’s possession, and it appeared that the Tigers would earn the win in the third overtime. But, Mathias, aided by the wind at his back, booted the record-tying 47-yarder. Everyone in attendance shook their heads and marveled at the scene. The players had never been a part of a game like this.
Mathias hooked his 40-yard attempt in the fourth overtime. All Gingery had to do was make his 22nd field goal of the season, and the Tigers would earn their 10th win of the season and advance to the second round. He had never made a walk-off kick before.
“I kind of blacked out a little bit, honestly. It was definitely a good feeling to see it go through,” said Gingery of his 37-yard game-winner. “Everybody on their team has their roles. My job is just to kick. I try to go out there and just do my job. That was just another kick, but it’s definitely exciting to kick one in the fourth overtime of a playoff game. As a senior, it doesn’t get much better than that. That’s an experience you’re only going to get to have once.”
At the conclusion of Wittenberg’s news conference, a precocious 12-year-old deputy reporter asked Gingery what it felt like to make a game-winning field goal to keep his team’s season alive. His coach responded in terms that the youngster could understand:
“Do you like Christmas?” asked Fincham. “That’s what he just had.”
After exhilarating finishes on Saturday, the Johnnies, Saxons, and Tigers get the gift of spending Thanksgiving with their teammates, preparing for a 12th game.