On a game-deciding drive where everything seemed to go Luther College's way, the Central College football team was down to hoping for a break.
It got it. Luther's 26-yard field goal try with 2 seconds remaining sailed wide and the Dutch escaped with a 23-21 comeback victory Saturday.
"You just hope that one time, one play, something was going to break our way on that last drive and, fortunately, it did," coach Jeff McMartin said.
In a game that featured seven lead changes, Central got the winner with 5:29 left on a 2-yard Blaine Hawkins (freshman, Ankeny) TD pass to running back Donny Groezinger (junior, Sulphur Springs, Texas; Eastland, Ill. HS). The point-after try was blocked, however—moments after a field goal attempt was blocked as well--leading to some unsettling moments down the stretch.
Luther (5-4 overall, 4-3 Iowa Conference) held the ball the rest of the way, moving 73 yards in 20 plays. The Norse converted three times on fourth down in the drive, the final time on a 3rd-and-9 play in which a Central deflection that looked like a sure game-winner caromed into the hands of Luther receiver Justin Montgomery for a 22-yard gain to the Dutch 20. That put the Norse into position for the winning field goal, and they pushed the ball to the Central 4 while milking the final seconds off the clock.
"You'd like to think, 'Hey, we're due a good one,' because we had a couple of things not go our way with the blocked kicks and we had a chance on the last fourth down to get a stop and we didn't," McMartin said.
On a day when the Dutch offense was uncharacteristically slow out of the blocks, Central's defense responded, despite playing without the league's leading tackler, injured linebacker Sam Norgaard (senior, Naperville, Ill., Neuqua Valley HS). Linebacker Tyler Olson (senior, Mapleton, Minn., Maple River HS) had a career-high 20 tackles.
"Tyler Olson played great," McMartin said. "He was amazing. He was everywhere on the field. He had to be. He had to be that guy that stepped up.
"And I thought that up front, on the defensive line, there were some things that we're going to look at on film and like."
Luther's run-oriented option offense churned out 370 rushing yards and 463 yards overall to Central's 370.
"That's a tough offense to defend," McMartin said. "They've got some really good skill people and some really good speed. I thought their quarterback threw the ball well today. They've much improved their passing game just in the last two or three weeks. They made it tough today."
Luther was bidding for its first win over Central since 2008 and gave a spirited attempt. Just a week after the Dutch shattered several offensive records in a 65-24 runaway over Loras College, they were held to just three points in the first half.
"We weren't able to generate first downs," McMartin said. "We couldn't get much going on offense and they run an offense that consumes a lot of clock. You don't get off the field on defense and you don't do anything on offense other than punt, you're going to be looking at a lot of zeros."
Central mustered just 114 yards offense in the first half, yet trailed just 7-3, leaving McMartin hopeful.
"I felt if we could keep it manageable in the first half and make some adjustments, we had a chance to put some points on the board in the first half," McMartin said.
Then the stalemate turned into a shootout, with the teams trading scores the rest of the way.
Hawkins put Central up 10-7 on an 11-yard keeper on Central's first drive of the third quarter, set up by a 54-yard kickoff return by Danny Anderson (sophomore, Boone).
"That opening drive of the second half I think is a very important drive every week," McMartin said. "For us to go down and score kind of made a statement that, 'Hey, we're here, we're ready to be a second-half football team.'"
A 30-yard Hawkins toss to tight end P.J. Norem (senior, Iowa Falls) put Central up 17-14 later in the period.
Luther scored early in the fourth period for a 21-17 advantage and Central missed a chance to cut the lead when Jon Alberts (sophomore, Huntley, Ill.) had a 36-yard field goal attempt blocked. It was his first miss of the year on 14 attempts. His 27-yard field goal in the first half let him tie the school season record 13 field goals booted by Jake Viggers in 2007.
But with just under 8 minutes remaining, Central got another chance. A 28-yard Hunter Robinson (sophomore, Lisbon) punt return got the Dutch started and they moved the remaining 50 yards in seven plays for the decisive points.
Still, Luther appeared poised for victory as it set up for the last-second field goal.
"We were hoping for the block," McMartin said. "At that point, you just had that as your best bet. I don't think you could expect anything else. It was right in the middle of the field, it was at extra-point depth. We tried to get a good push and bring pressure from the outside but when it cleared, I came away very surprised with how it ended up."
Hawkins was Central's leading rusher with 87 yards on 16 carries while completing 15-of-30 for 230 yards and two scores through the air. S-back Kyle Gritsch (senior, Brooklyn, BGM HS) made some gritty catches over the middle, finishing with a team-high four receptions for 108 yards.
Linebacker Josh Scheible (senior, Kansas City, Mo., Liberty HS) followed Olson on the tackle charts with 12 while defensive back Trevor Smith (sophomore, Audubon) and linebacker Carson Remick (senior, Hillsboro, Mount Pleasant HS) each had nine stops. Linebacker Chris Neeld (senior, New Boston, Ill., Mercer County HS) had eight stops and recorded the first quarterback sack allowed by Luther this year.
"Our guys never quit," McMartin said. "They battled all the way to the end and found a way to win."
Central wraps up the regular season next Saturday, playing host to the University of Dubuque in a 1 p.m. game at Ron and Joyce Schipper Stadium. The Spartans are 6-3 overall and 4-3 in the conference after a 35-21 win against Coe College at Dubuque Saturday.