Not even 503 yards of offense could trump six Central College turnovers as the University of Dubuque prevailed in a battle of Iowa Conference football unbeatens, 35-17 Saturday.
Three turnovers and three fumbles kept the Dutch defense on the field for nearly 35 of the game's 60 minutes and allowed Dubuque's big-play offense enough opportunities to strike, as quarterback Conor Feckley tossed five touchdown passes, including three longer than 25 yards. It's Dubuque's first win in Pella since 1980.
"When you have 500 yards and just score 17 points, you didn't do something right," coach Jeff McMartin said.
Central (4-1 overall, 2-1 conference), which was ranked No. 24 by D3football.com, got a 52-yard strike from quarterback Riley Gray (senior, West Des Moines, Waukee HS) to P.J. Carey (junior, Ankeny) on its first possession, but controlled the ball for only 3:48 in the first quarter and 10:14 for the first half. Central added 10 second-quarter points but needed a 33-yard Aaron Marcellus (senior, Hudson) field goal with 1 second left in the half to climb within 28-17 at the break. The Dutch were blanked the rest of the way. Central suffered three turnovers in Dubuque territory and came up empty on three fourth-down plays as Dubuque, ranked No. 21 in the AFCA Division III coaches' poll, improved to 5-0 overall and 3-0 in the league.
That overshadowed the unveiling of a new Dutch running threat. With starting running back Donny Groezinger (sophomore, Sulphur Springs, Texas, Eastland, Ill. HS) sidelined by an injury suffered last week, Central turned first to Cory Archer (junior, Fremont, Eddyville-Blakesburg HS) and then sophomore Nathan Fitzgerald (Elkader, Central Elkader HS). Fitzgerald, who had just one rush in the first quarter, erupted for 219 yards on 32 carries, the first 200-yard performance by a Central back since Josh Osborn riddled Dubuque for 254 yards in 2014. Fitzgerald obliterated his previous career high of 59 yards against Maranatha Baptist (Wis.) last year.
"Nathan had a great day," McMartin said. "He ran the ball very well. We're very happy with what he did for us."
Central rushed for 234 yards overall while Gray and Nate Boland (sophomore, Iowa City, West HS) combined to complete 15 of 35 passes for 269 yards with three interceptions and two touchdowns. The Dutch outgained Dubuque 503-410 yards. Feckley connected on 28-of-50 for 349 yards with two interceptions, but the Spartans were limited to just 61 yards rushing on 31 carries.
"Really, overall our defense played very well, especially with the number of turnovers we had," McMartin said. "When you turn the ball over that many times, it can really get out of hand. We kept things manageable and we had some chances."
Linebacker Jessie Peterson (senior, Coralville, Iowa City West HS), back in the starting lineup after being slowed by injury, returned in a big way with 16 tackles, including five solos.
"Jessie's all over the field," McMartin said. "He plays hard and he lays it all out there. They get a great effort every time from him."
Cornerback Trevor Smith (sophomore, Audobon) and linebacker Drew Carlson (senior, Ankeny) each had eight stops.
"I felt like our defensive effort was very good and our offensive effort at times looked good but there were a lot of turnovers and stalled drives," McMartin said.
And next week, the Dutch have to deal with another conference co-leader, traveling to Cedar Rapids to take on Coe College. The Kohawks (5-0 overall, 3-0 conference) knocked off Wartburg College at home Saturday with a late score, 37-34.
The Dutch will forge ahead, McMartin said.
"There's a lot of good with this football team," he said. "We just didn't show all of it today. We've got to work hard this week and get prepared and see where that takes us."