Record-setting Central football season ends in NCAA playoffs

WHEATON, ILL.— It was a November to remember that ended with a rainy Saturday that wasn’t as No. 3-ranked Wheaton College (Ill.) decisively brought an end to Central College’s NCAA Division III football playoff road 49-13.

The unbeaten Thunder (13-0) struck for five first-quarter touchdowns, the most ever allowed by a Central squad, and soared to a 35-0 lead that grew to 42-7 at halftime.

Wheaton advances to next Saturday’s quarterfinals against No. 8 Saint John’s University (Minn.) which overwhelmed Chapman University (Calif.) 55-26.

Saturday wrapped a memorable month and season which saw the Dutch (10-2) rally from a 28-7 Oct. 12 loss to Dubuque with six straight wins, including a 51-34 road win at Simpson College Nov. 2, a 57-56 overtime triumph over previously unbeaten Wartburg College Nov. 9, an American Rivers title share-clinching 31-21 win at Coe College Nov. 16 and a dramatic 38-37 overtime triumph over No. 21-rated Wis.-Oshkosh in the opening round of the NCAA playoffs Nov. 23.

But Saturday the Dutch (10-2) compounded their first-half woes with a botched punt attempt and an interception that set up Wheaton scores. The Thunder had four first-half scoring plays of 34 yards or longer, including three from more than 50 yards out.

Coach Jeff McMartin credited Wheaton.

“They’re a great football team with talented players but we did not help ourselves,” he said. “We failed to get a punt off one time, we turned the ball over, we gave up some big plays. We did some things that can really put you behind the eight-ball. Nobody expects to be behind by 35 points in the first quarter but a lot of those things were big factors.

“We gave up some things that definitely hurt us and we weren’t able to counterpunch back.”

But Central has made a living overcoming mistakes and deficits. The Dutch were staggered by the first-quarter blitz, but not down.

“We’ve been way up and we’ve been way down at times this season,” McMartin said. “You kind of get punched in the face a little bit but we have really worked hard to be a one-play-at-a-time team this year so I don’t think people were walking around in a daze. We failed to make some important plays and Wheaton’s very good but overall our mindset was still where it had to be at that point.”

Fresh in the collective Dutch memories was the 31-7 halftime deficit Central overcame in last week’s 38-37 overtime playoff win over the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

“We talked about that,” McMartin said. “It’s something that has to happen one play at a time, it’s not going to happen all in the third quarter or all in the first drive. You can’t do that. We worked hard to make the adjustments we needed to make. We played a good third quarter but we gave up one long play. But we just couldn’t get into a good rhythm offensively and that made it tough. We’re a team that scores points but we weren’t able to do that.”

It was Central’s second-lowest point total of the season and the fifth-worst loss in school history. The Dutch were outgained 474 yards to 253. Wheaton quarterback Luke Anthony threw 18 times but completed 12 for 265 yards and five touchdowns. Running back Stone Watson rushed for 100 yards on just 10 carries.

Quarterback Blaine Hawkins (junior, Ankeny) was under pressure all afternoon and was sacked five times. His record-breaking season quietly closed with a subdued stat line, completing 18 of 32 passes for 200 yards and two interceptions with two touchdowns.

“They were very good up front, they had a great pass rush and they made things go very quickly for us,” McMartin said. “They were also very good in the secondary so things were really sped up with the rush and guys being covered.”

Hawkins finished the year completing 252 of 382 passes (66.0%) for 3,302 yards with 14 interceptions and 44 touchdowns, setting school marks for completions, yards and touchdowns. His completion percentage ranks second behind his record of 67.1 set last year.

He also set the season total offense record with 3,824.

“Every year Blaine has started out great and has just gotten better since,” McMartin said. “He had a great season and that’s something that we’re really proud of.”

Senior wide receiver Hunter Robinson (Lisbon) had eight catches for 140 yards and also was the team’s top rusher with five carries for 24 yards.

Robinson put a bow on his record-breaking senior season with one more TD strike from Hawkins, a 44-yarder with 36 seconds left. It was his school-record 15th touchdown reception of the season and brought a roar from a notably sized throng of Central fans who endured a cold dishrag of an afternoon.

“I told Hunter after the game, ‘What a way to end your career,’” McMartin said. “And it was kind of a real typical touchdown pass for him. It was a deep ball and he ran away from coverage and made a play. He was great on the return game, too.”

He finished with 64 catches for 958 yards while Erik Knaack (junior, Reinbeck, Gladbrook-Reinbeck HS) led Central with 67 receptions for 1,088 yards, which ranks second in school history, and 14 scores.

One of the few other offensive highlights was a third-quarter fake punt by Danny Anderson (senior, Boone) that turned into a 23-yard gain.

“That’s 3-for-3 on fake punts (this year),” McMartin said. “It was something we thought was there and we had practiced it.”

Anderson was inserted after the stumble on Central’s initial punt. The veteran cornerback tried punting for the first time this season and got the most out of his rugby-style kicks Saturday, averaging 48.6 yards and sticking Wheaton inside its 20-yard line twice, including once inside the 5.

“Danny Anderson punted really well,” McMartin said. “What a highlight in terms of how he executed.”

Linebacker Connor Lewin (senior, Stillman Valley, Ill.) had 12 tackles while linebacker Tate O’Tool (senior, Fort Dodge, St. Edmond HS) had nine stops. Lewin had 98 tackles for the year, second on the team behind sophomore free safety Brayden Egli (Saint Charles, Interstate 35 HS), who had 101.

Kicker Jon Alberts (senior, Huntley, Ill.) was among 22 Central seniors whose careers closed Saturday. Alberts had a 40-yard first-quarter field goal try blocked, just his second miss in 13 tries this season. He still finishes as the most accurate field goal kicker in school history, hitting 86,8% for his career (33-38). He was a perfect 59-of-59 on extra points, setting school records for number of extra points as well as percentage.

“Jon Alberts is one in a million,” McMartin said. “We were blessed to have him as our kicker.”

He was part of a senior class that set the tone for Central’s first NCAA playoff team since 2009 and the first to reach the second round since 2007. The Dutch captured a share of a record 31st conference championship.

“ I’m really proud of this football team,” McMartin said. “We got a ton out of these guys. They played really well and I think that they were resilient. I’ve been very happy with how far we’ve come from the beginning of the season and how far we’ve come from the Dubuque game. I couldn’t be prouder of a group of guys in how resilient they were and how focused they were. They did the things we needed to do to be successful. They buried that Dubuque game and just moved forward. That was the thing that they had to do and they did it.”

And the program is positioned to make its wait for another NCAA playoff berth a short one.

“We have a lot of good players returning,” McMartin said. “We played a lot of juniors this year and I’m happy with our freshman class and our sophomores, they’re only going to get better and better.”

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