A share of a record 31st conference championship was among the most elusive at times, but the Central College football team withstood another second-half comeback bid to nail it down Saturday, 31-21 at Coe College.
That also gives the Dutch their 21st NCAA Division III playoff berth. It ends a 10-year title and postseason drought for the league's most tradition-rich program—last winning in 2009--after several close calls. Coe spoiled Central's title hopes a year ago with a 27-24 overtime decision late in the year.
Central (9-1 overall, 7-1 conference) shares the title with Wartburg College, a 48-7 winner over Loras College Saturday. But the Dutch gained the league's automatic NCAA berth after a 57-56 overtime victory over the Knights at Pella last week.
The 32-team playoff field will be announced Sunday on the NCAA selection show at 4:30 p.m. via www.ncaa.com. First-round games are set for next Saturday at noon.
"This means everything for our players," said coach Jeff McMartin, who's led five league championship squads in his 16 seasons. "The kids were so emotional afterwards. They talked last week about how this championship isn't just for this team, it's for the past players who showed this team what this legacy is all about and taught them that they are part of a championship program. It's really special."
Few of Central's nine wins came without absorbing some blows, however, and Coe (6-4 overall, 5-3 conference), which entered the game with a mathematical chance at a title share of its own, came out firing. Senior quarterback Max Ridenour, forced into the lineup by injury, led the Kohawks on a 12-play, 68-yard opening drive for a quick 7-0 lead.
"We had to get our feet under us," McMartin said. "(Ridenour) is a different style of quarterback and we had to make some adjustments. We probably didn't attack that first drive the way we needed to. Their quarterback made some nice runs and they had us off balance."
But as it has so often, Central unleashed its multi-pronged offensive attack after an initial three-and-out. The Dutch reeled off 31 unanswered points, taking a 14-7 halftime lead and extending it to a 31-7 advantage with 11:20 left in the game. Quarterback Blaine Hawkins (junior, Ankeny) added to his collection of school records by breaking the season touchdown passes mark set by Tim Connell (2007) with three more to give him 38. Hunter Robinson (senior, Lisbon) had seven catches for 133 yards and a touchdown, extending his season record to 14 TD receptions. Sophomore running back Jason Hopp (Earlham ) topped the 100-yard mark for the third time with 103 yards on 22 carries and also caught two passes for 40 yards and a score.
Central also scored on a 6-yard wildcat scramble by freshman Cameron Bannister (State Center, West Marshall HS), an 11-yard Tanner Schminke (junior, Boone) catch and a 10th field goal in 11 tries from ever-steady kicker Jon Alberts (senior, Huntley, Ill.), a 20-yarder.
"Blaine (Hawkins) played a really good game again today," McMartin said. "Jason Hopp ran the ball well, Hunter Robinson made some big catches and the offensive line was very good."
But for the third straight week, the Dutch had to weather some fourth-quarter turbulence as Coe scored twice in the final 7:21. Central was forced to recover a pair of onside kicks to help secure the win.
"That's kind of the scenario of the season," McMartin said. "We haven't had any easy ones. But that's part of the learning process. Each week, we're playing good teams. Everybody's got a good offense and we're seeing a lot of good quarterbacks. We knew in this end-of-the-year stretch we would be playing tough teams and we were."
But those late points were the only ones surrendered following Coe's opening drive. The Dutch defensive line was especially active. Hunter Maddy (junior, Mystic, Centerville HS) had seven tackles with a sack and a pass breakup. Blade Durbala (junior, Blairstown, Benton HS) had 2.0 sacks among his six tackles and fellow lineman Matt Glockel (junior, Malvern, East Mills HS) had 1.5 tackles for loss.
"Blade (Durbala) played really well and Hunter Maddy really played hard," McMartin said. "The defensive line made a lot of plays."
Strong safety Jordy Borman (senior, Eagan, Minn.) had a season-high 10 tackles and a breakup while linebackers Connor Lewin (senior, Stillman Valley, Ill.) and Tate O'Tool (senior, Fort Dodge, St. Edmond HS) each had seven stops.
The Dutch offense was the first in the league to score more than 21 points against Coe's conference-leading defense. Central outgained the Kohawks 383 yards to 334. Hawkins was 17-of-23 for 218 yards while the Dutch gained 165 yards on the ground.
"Offensively, getting (left guard) Jake Suggett (senior, Chula Vista, Calif., Eastlake HS) back (from injury) really completed us up front," McMartin said.
The playoffs require a one-and-done mindset, but McMartin said the Dutch have played with that all year, particularly after suffering a jarring 28-7 loss to the University of Dubuque Oct. 12.
"We had no margin for error after that," McMartin said. "The next week we had to regroup and regain our focus."
Potential pairings are not a concern until Sunday's announcement.
"We're excited to keep playing football another week," McMartin said. "We've got another week to keep getting better and see where it takes us."
But what happens then won't alter the feeling McMartin was savoring Saturday.
"It's really special to get this win for our seniors," he said. "They've never done this before. It's unknown in their world."