What started as an uphill climb seemed to grow only steeper for the Central College football team Saturday in its first loss, a 47-20 stumble at Wartburg College.
The defeat throws the American Rivers Conference title chase wide open, but the No. 20-rated Dutch remain in good position at 5-1 in the league, narrowly ahead of 4-1 Wartburg, Simpson College and the University of Dubuque. Those three schools have three 2018 league games remaining while Central has two.
Central (7-1 overall) sustained a game-changing blow late in the first quarter. Wartburg (5-2 overall) burst on top with a 56-yard JoJo McNair scoring run on the game's third play. Yet the Dutch, 7-1 overall, began clawing their way back. Jon Alberts (junior, Huntley, Ill.) booted a 40-yard field goal and one series later, Central was driving for the potential go-ahead score. But after darting up the middle for 21 yards to the Wartburg 30, sophomore quarterback Blaine Hawkins (Ankeny) tumbled to the turf with an injury that forced him out of the game and the drive stalled. Alberts rescued the Dutch, taking advantage of a stiff wind with a school-record 55-yard field goal, topping the 1982 mark of 52 yards set by Craig Wassenaar.
"Jon kicked really well," coach Jeff McMartin said. "He gave us what we needed."
That left it a 6-6 game heading into the second quarter. But Wartburg needed just 2:29 to move 76 yards and regain the lead at 13-6, and Hawkins' attempt to play through the injury faltered. He returned for two series but the Dutch failed to gain a first down and he spent the remainder of the game on the bench.
Meanwhile the Wartburg offense thrived as senior quarterback Matt Sacia, last year's league MVP, threw five touchdown passes, completing 18-of-26 for 241 yards. The Knights took command with a 26-6 halftime lead and extended it to 47-6 after three periods.
"They played well," McMartin said. "They're a good football team and they executed well. You have to make plays and play your best if you're going to win that football game and we didn't do that."
Initially, Tanner Schminke (sophomore, Boone) shifted from wide receiver to fill in for Hawkins at quarterback before McMartin called on freshman Brayden Egli (Saint Charles, I-35 HS). Egli threw fourth-quarter TD passes of 28 yards to Erik Knaack (sophomore, Reinbeck, Gladbrook-Reinbeck HS) and 9 yards to Hunter Robinson (junior, Lisbon). Egli completed 11 of 21 passes for a career-best 150 yards.
"I thought Brayden competed well as the game went on," McMartin said. "He got some good repetitions. We'll continue to work with him and all of our guys."
But Central, which entered the game ranked sixth in Division III in completion percentage (70.4), connected on only 16 of 37 overall for 190 yards with one interception. Hawkins hit on 5-of-12 for 40 yards. Knaack had six catches for 104 yards. Running back Nathan Fitzgerald (senior, Elkader, Central HS) was the top rusher with 70 yards on 17 carries. Central was outgained 523 yards to 368 overall.
"You've got to get first downs," McMartin said. "Today we weren't able to do that. That made it tough. You've got to stay on the field, get some momentum and get some rhythm."
Linebacker Connor Lewin (junior, Stillman Valley, Ill.) had 10 tackles while free safety Collin Erickson (senior, Gilbert, Ariz., Dobson HS) had nine. Linebackers Drew Smith (sophomore, Joliet, Ill., West HS) and Tate O'Tool (junior, Fort Dodge, St. Edmond HS) each had six stops.
Central returns to Pella for its home-season finale Saturday, meeting Coe College at Schipper Stadium in a 1 p.m. game. Coe, 3-4 overall and 2-3 in the league, was off this week. Central defeated the Kohawks 30-19 at Cedar Rapids last year.
McMartin is eager to put Saturday's setback in the rear-view mirror.
"We've got a big game with Coe and I'm excited to get back to watch film and practice," he said. "You can't feel sorry for yourself. We can't play today's game over. All we can do is look ahead and keep getting better. This will be our last home game and we've got a lot to play for. We've got to work really hard and do better this week."