Central College was looking for a quarterback.
The Dutch found two.
Injured starter Riley Gray (junior, Waukee, West Des Moines HS) had to stay on the sidelines so coach Jeff McMartin turned to the tandem of freshman Nate Boland (Iowa City, West HS) and versatile sophomore Kohle Helle (Guttenberg, Clayton Ridge HS). They rallied Central (5-3 overall, 3-2 Iowa Conference) from a 24-14 deficit to a 31-24 victory at Simpson College (3-5 overall, 2-3 conference) Saturday.
The duo combined to help the Dutch roll up 519 yards of total offense, a Central season high in Iowa Conference play.
But with the game's momentum ping-ponging wildly back and forth, the issue wasn't settled until the closing seconds when linebacker Mitch Schroeder (senior, Lowden, North Cedar HS) made a leaping interception at the Central 13-yard line.
The Dutch burst on top with two first-half touchdowns, watched Simpson score 24 unanswered points and then answered with a 17-point run of their own for the win.
"That took a lot of guts," McMartin said. "These kids had a great week of practice. They knew what was at stake. They knew Simpson was going to play very hard. The game meant a lot to them but it means a lot to us, too."
Gray was injured late in the second half of last week's 27-13 win over Coe College. He dressed for the game and went through pregame warmups but was held out of action.
However, Boland stepped in like a veteran, completing his first three passes and shepherding a 10-play, 67-yard touchdown drive on Central's opening possession. A 13-yard pass to P.J. Carey (sophomore, Ankeny) got the score. He later hit S-back Kyle Gritsch (sophomore, Brooklyn, BGM HS) on a 4-yard TD pass and it was 14-0 with 14:04 left in the second quarter.
Simpson rebounded with a 35-yard TD strike and a 41-yard Drew Jensen field goal as time expired to make it 14-10 Dutch at intermission.
On Simpson's first play from scrimmage in the third quarter, running back Jordan Beem burst free down the sidelines for a 73-yard touchdown run to take the lead. The next Simpson possession was costly as well as the Dutch yielded a 62-yard pass play that set up a 1-yard Beem touchdown run. Central was suddenly staring at a 24-14 deficit with 6:21 left in the third quarter.
But that's when the Dutch defense stiffened and the offense sprang to life. Helle's role was key as he began taking some snaps at quarterback in addition to playing wide receiver. In one sequence he caught a 27-yard pass, then ran for 7 yards as the quarterback on the following play.
And after the Simpson score, Helle directed an eight-play series exclusively at quarterback, moving the Dutch 75 yards for the score with running back Adam Lindell (senior, Denver, Colo., Arapahoe HS) finding the end zone from 14 yards out. Helle ran for 26 yards and completed two passes for 34 yards on the drive.
"After that second long (Simpson) touchdown, we were a totally different football team," McMartin said. "I think it really helped that our offense went down and got a score. We got great field position after that—we had them pinned back a few times on some kicks. Then the defense started getting stops and we got the momentum back."
A 32-yard Aaron Marcellus (junior, Hudson) field goal with 12:14 left in the game tied it at 24-24.
Central then missed a couple of chances before Boland took over at the Dutch 33 with 3:24 left on the clock. McMartin liked his team's chances.
"We moved the ball well all day," he said. "Really, we stopped ourselves a few times. We had some drops and some penalties. We did some things that made it hard on us.
"But I just felt like we had plenty of time on the clock. There were over 3 minutes left. We just needed to keep getting first downs and get it in there. Aaron Marcellus did a great job of kicking today for us and I felt like if it came down to a field goal, he'd make it."
It didn't come down to that. A 13-yard Pat Gray (freshman, West Des Moines, Waukee HS) run got things going, then Boland caught the defense off guard with a 46-yard keeper to the Simpson 8. He followed with a 7-yard run and on 3rd-and-1, Gritsch muscled his way into the end zone to make it 31-24 Dutch with 1:49 left.
Simpson's desperation drive reached the Central 22 before Schroeder's third pick of the season secured the win.
Boland completed 16 of 26 passes for 274 yards and two touchdowns in his first collegiate start while also running for a team-high 73 yards on nine carries. Helle was everywhere—he hit on 4 of 5 passes for 51 yards, rushed for 63 yards on 12 carries and caught three passes for 89 yards.
"Kohle Helle coming in in the second half just changed the tempo a little bit, it changed the focus," McMartin said. "Nate Boland did a great job, too.
"We're going to watch this film and we're going to see that Nate did a great job at quarterback today and we're also going to see that Kohle Helle did a great job at quarterback and at other positions. He's a really special quarterback, he's a great runner and he's one of our best receivers. He can do a lot of things."
It was another big day for wide receiver Sam Markham (sophomore, Atlantic) as well, with nine catches for 141 yards as he closes in on the school season receptions record. He now has 61 catches and needs just two receptions to tie the mark of 63 set by Chris Johnson in 1998. Markham's 867 receiving yards rank third on the school season list with two games remaining.
It was not a flawless game, however. Central hadn't lost a fumble all season but lost two on drives inside the red zone. The Dutch also entered the day as the least-penalized team in the NCAA Division III with just 2.43 a game but was flagged three times for 30 yards Saturday.
Linebacker Jessie Peterson (junior, Coralville, Iowa City West HS) had a game-high 12 tackles, including eight solos and 1.5 tackles for loss. Defensive lineman Corbin Blythe (sophomore, Williamsburg) had seven stops and a sack while Schroeder and linebacker Drew Carlson (junior, Ankeny) each had six tackles. Schroeder also had a sack while Carlson registered 1.5 tackles for loss.
The teams started the day tied for the league lead in sacks but Central inched ahead with four more to Simpson's three, giving the Dutch 20 for the year.
Central outgained Simpson 519 yards to 394, with 325 yards passing and 194 yards rushing. Simpson threw for 224 yards and ran for 170.
"We gave up some big plays and that made it tough," McMartin said. "But I thought in the first half (the defense) played pretty well. We got the stops we needed to.
"(Simpson) has a good offense. They run the ball really well--they've got a lot of talent at the running back position and in the offensive line. So to get those stops (in the fourth quarter) was really big."
Central returns to Pella for the season's final home game next Saturday. The Dutch take on Buena Vista (1-7 overall, 0-5 conference) in a 1 p.m. contest at Ron and Joyce Schipper Stadium.
But McMartin will first take a moment to savor his players' effort.
"I'm really proud of the guys and I'm proud of the passion they played with," he said. "That's a Central football game the way we all want to see it played."