Overcoming a physical Simpson College defense and a series of self-inflicted maladies and bad bounces, the Central College football launched a clutch final-minute strike on a broken play for a come-from-behind 17-16 victory and sole possession of first place in the American Rivers Conference. With just 21 seconds remaining, tight end Ross Norem (junior, Iowa Falls, Iowa Falls-Alden HS) stretched to snag a 15-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Blaine Hawkins (sophomore, Ankeny) in the back of the end zone. Kicker Jon Alberts (junior, Huntley, Ill.) booted the game-winning point-after.
Central remains unbeaten at 7-0 overall and 5-0 in the league. It was the first conference setback for Simpson (4-2 overall, 3-1 conference).
The Dutch were stymied by a pair of fumbles and five costly penalties for 64 yards as Simpson largely held in check an offense that was averaging a league-leading 444 yards. And when a Hawkins' fourth-down pass from the Simpson 23 fell incomplete with 4:54 left, there was a chance the Dutch might not see the football again—or first place in the league.
"There were a lot of things we hurt ourselves with and challenged us, but I'll also say this, Simpson has a really good football team," coach Jeff McMartin said. "They played really well on defense and they've got a great running back. For them, it was going according to script. Run the ball, play great defense. They had us where they wanted us. And we made some mistakes and weren't able to capitalize on some scoring chances."
But Simpson made some miscues as well, none bigger than following its go-ahead touchdown with 7:28 left. A holding penalty on the point after forced another try from 10 yards back for a 30-yard kick that sailed wide.
So when Central forced a punt and took over at the Simpson 47 with 2:37 left, it had one more shot at a win. After eight plays, including a critical 18-yard fourth-and-10 completion to running back Donny Groezinger (senior, Sulphur Springs, Texas, Eastland, Ill.), the Dutch faced third-and-6 from the 15-yard line. Hawkins, who had already been sacked four times, found his receivers covered and was forced to scramble to his left, eyeing a potential first down run. But with a pass rusher on his heels, he stopped to throw away from his body, firing back across the middle to Norem who leaped for the tying score.
"You want to have people who have short memories when they make mistakes and Blaine (Hawkins) is really good about playing the next play and not living in the past whether it was good or bad," McMartin said. "Give him a lot of credit. He is really good at extending plays and he did that again today. There were a lot of times where something wasn't open and he was able to kind of make something happen. We got some timely plays when we needed them. He's a playmaker and I wouldn't trade him."
The touchdown was a collegiate first for Norem, in his debut season as the starter at tight end, following his graduated brother, P.J. He also set up Central's first touchdown with an 81-yard catch-and-run. Pat Gray (senior, West Des Moines, Waukee HS) followed with a 1-yard score to tie the game 10-10 with 14:27 left in the fourth quarter.
"Ross had a great game," McMartin said. "He came here as a quarterback and has just been a true team guy. Whatever the team has needed him to do, he's done. He works as hard as anybody on this football team. It's nice to see guys like that have success. He came through huge for us today."
Central's only first-half score was a 34-yard Alberts field goal with 9 seconds left in the first quarter. It was only his third field-goal attempt of the year and just the second time the Dutch penetrated the opponent's 20-yard line and didn't come away with a touchdown.
But Central's defense kept victory within its grasp. A 41-yard field goal with 34 seconds remaining in the second quarter was Simpson's only score of the half.
"I give our defense a lot of credit. As I observed them in practice all week, I really felt like they were locked into the game plan and what they had to do. I think we learned some things from the Nebraska Wesleyan game that we were able to improve on. The guys played with a chip on their shoulder and that seems to work well for them. They like that feeling of playing with something to prove and I thought they did today. I thought that they hung in there."
Central outgained Simpson 406 yards to 368. Hawkins completed 20 of 35 passes with one TD and no interceptions. He was also Central's top rusher with 46 yards on 19 carries, despite 23 yards lost due to sacks. Groezinger had five catches for 40 yards while Erik Knaack (sophomore, Reinbeck, Gladbrook-Reinbeck HS) had four for 89 yards and Norem had three for 112.
Defensive end Lou Gomez (sophomore, Mission, Texas) had 11 tackles, including a crucial fourth-down stop behind the line on the Central 11-yard line in the second quarter while linebackers Drew Kithcart (senior, Atkins, Benton HS) and Tate O'Tool (junior, Fort Dodge, St. Edmond HS) had 10. Linebacker Connor Lewin (junior, Stillman Valley, Ill.) and nose guard Blade Durbala (sophomore, Blairstown) each had nine stops.
The road ahead remains a bumpy one. The Dutch travel to Waverly next Saturday for a 1:30 p.m. game at preseason league favorite Wartburg College. The Knights outlasted Coe College at Cedar Rapids Saturday, 31-19, and are 4-2 overall with a 3-1 league mark.