Even a bumpy start didn't slow Central College's football offensive juggernaut as quarterback Riley Gray (senior, West Des Moines, Waukee HS) passed for four touchdowns and ran for two more in overpowering Simpson College in the home-season finale Saturday, 49-14.
It was career win No. 100 for coach Jeff McMartin. In his 13th season, he's compiled a 100-35 (.740) mark, becoming just the second Central coach ever to reach the century mark. He also ranks second in career winning percentage behind his mentor, College Football Hall of Fame coach Ron Schipper (1961-96), who rolled up a 287-67-3 (.808) record in 36 seasons. McMartin, a 1990 Central grad, entered the year ranked 12th in the NCAA Division III in winning percentage and has never had a losing season.
Central stumbled early Saturday. Gray had a first-quarter interception and the Dutch (7-2 overall, 5-2 Iowa Conference) found themselves trailing 14-7 late in the second quarter, but Gray engineered a dramatic turnaround, finishing 19-of-28 for 295 yards and was also the game's top rusher, gaining 65 yards on 13 carries.
And he didn't even play in the fourth quarter.
Gray's 2,312 passing yards, 187 completions and 26 TD passes in 2016 all rank second in school history. His 39 career TD passes rank fourth and he's climbed to sixth in career passing yards with 3,821.
"Riley's having a great senior year," coach Jeff McMartin said. "He has a lot to be proud of. He's finishing strong and that's really the goal for our football team. For Riley, to persevere, go through what he's gone through, overcoming being injured his freshman year, becoming a starter as a junior and even going through some injuries last year, I'm just really happy he's having a great senior season."
Central racked up another 580 yards of offense, pushing the team's season average to 545.2 yards and is already assured of having the most in school history.
But that offense was slumbering early Saturday. A 29-yard Gray TD run midway through the first quarter put the Dutch up 7-0, yet they controlled the ball for less than five of the game's first 15 minutes. And an interception and fumble both led to second-quarter Simpson scores, leaving Central behind 14-7 with 5:56 left in the half.
A 33-yard Gray TD pass to Sam Markham (senior, Atlantic) with 3:23 left gave the Dutch a spark. The Central defense forced a three-and-out, giving the Dutch the ball at their own 18 with just 1:43 remaining and they made masterful use of the sidelines to race 82 yards in nine plays. S-back Kyle Gritsch (junior, Brooklyn, BGM HS) made a leaping grab of a 15-yard Gray toss with 43 seconds left for a 21-14 lead at the break.
"It was a great drive," McMartin said. "We just methodically took it right down the field. We got some big plays. We got some key throws and some key runs and that catch by Kyle was spectacular."
It was a different game after that.
"I felt like the tide kind of turned in the second quarter when we got those two late scores," McMartin said. "We really got some great momentum."
Central pushed hard on the accelerator to start the third quarter. The Dutch defense opened with another three-and-out and one play later, Gray found Kohle Helle (junior, Guttenberg, Clayton Ridge HS) on a 53-yard scoring strike. The rout was on.
Gray ran for a 3-yard score and hit Zack Martinelli (senior, Elburn, Ill., Kaneland, Texas HS) for a 38-yard TD to run the lead to 42-14 after three quarters.
Most of the starters were on the sideline when running back Nathan Fitzgerald (sophomore, Elkader, Central Elkader HS) completed the scoring with a 9-yard fourth-quarter run.
Simpson (3-6 overall, 2-5 conference) finished with 317 yards of offense, including 188 through the air. Dutch free safety Zach Matter (senior, Ankeny) had a team-high 10 tackles. He also made his third interception of the year and the seventh career pick while also breaking up a pass.
"Zach's having a great season," McMartin said. "He's got a nose for the football in both the run game and the passing game. He plays about as hard as anyone we have on the football team. I couldn't be happier with his play this whole season."
Linebacker Jessie Peterson (senior, Coralville, Iowa City West HS) had eight tackles, including seven solos, along with a pass breakup while defensive lineman Edwin Etienne (senior, Lehigh Acres, Fla., Riverdale HS) and linebacker Chris Neeld (junior, New Boston, Ill., Mercer County HS) each had six stops. Ettiene's mother made a surprise trip to Pella for the Senior Day contest, seeing her son in a Central uniform for the first time.
Meanwhile, Markham had a routinely spectacular day with another 10 catches for 106 yards and a touchdown. It's the sixth time this season he's topped the 100-yard mark. The Division III receiving leader extended his school career receptions record to 214 and his season mark to 93, while increasing his season and career receiving yards marks to 1,114 and 2,744.
There were 23 Central seniors playing their final game at Ron and Joyce Schipper Stadium Saturday.
"They've given us everything that we have asked them to give and then some," McMartin said. "They've set a high standard for the underclassmen. They've taught those guys how to win and how to do things right.
"We haven't had a bad practice this year and it's greatly due to the attitude they bring out every day to get better. They bring a lot of passion, they have a lot of fun and I'm very happy they could go out as winners on this field and win in the fashion they did."