While it is early in the season, there is no doubt that Saturday’s contest between the 2-1 Bethel Royals and the 4-0 Concordia Cobbers should be one of the most significant games of the year. This is also one of the reasons why conference play is so exciting. It is very likely that the loser of this game winds up out of the running for the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) title, while the winner instantly grabs the pole position in the race.
Besides the clear conference title implications, there are other aspects of this game that will bear watching. This is a matchup of two teams that are both ranked nationally in the latest Division-III polls. The AFCA Coaches poll has Concordia-Moorehead ranked 15th, while D3Football.com has them at No. 22. Bethel finds itself at No. 19 in the Coaches Poll, while No. 12 in the D3Football one. The fact that one poll sees Concordia stronger than Bethel, while the other poll sees the reverse is a clear indicator that both teams are very evenly matched, and that this should be a great game.
Both teams enter with identical 2-0 conference records. Bethel has beaten St. Olaf and Carleton, while Concordia has defeated St. John’s and St. Olaf. The comparison between the two teams goes well beyond conference records and national poll rankings however.
Both of these teams have quick strike offenses and extremely stout and talented defenses. The Royals are led by QB Erik Peterson, who was last year’s MIAC MVP after leading Bethel to the conference title and an undefeated conference record. He has the “Three Kings” in his backfield, running backs Brandon Marquardt, Marshall Klitzke and Bridgeport Tusler that are a 1-2-3 punch at running back that no other team in the conference can match. Combined the three have over 600 yards rushing this season in just three games, and the lowest yards per carry average is that of Marquardt at 5.4. It is a dynamic trio that allows the team to sit on leads, but also to score quickly, even on the ground.
On defense, this is a team that gave up 31 points in their opening season loss at Wartburg, and then has yielded just seven points since. They have an absolutely brutal defensive front line that dominates the trenches, and this is a well-coached defense that does not allow ball-carriers extra yards after first contact. They hit hard and tackle well.
The Cobbers boast their own stout defense. They are first in the MIAC in points allowed at a paltry 12.5 per game. This is a defense that boasts what is arguably the best set of defensive backs in the conference. Dan Berdan, Mitch Tauer, Tyler Hansen, Matt Ahrndt and Christian Erickson simply don’t allow big plays, and their two safeties always seem to be involved in the tackle. In addition, they have a linebacking corps that is seven deep, and they too are well-coached in the art of tackling,
On offense Griffin Neal is the third highest rated passer in the conference, and is not only accurate with the ball, he is careful. In 103 attempts this season he has been picked off just once, and the senior has combined for over 1000 yards of total offense. On the ground senior running back Alex McLean is seventh in the league with 228 yards, just nine behind Marquardt. He is actually a true full back, and his 6.9 yards per carry easily explains why it is so hard to try to bring down the 5-10, 215 pound back.
The game will be played in Arden Hills, which was the scene of one of the most exciting games in this conference two years ago. In that game Bethel pulled out the 14-13 victory when the Concordia sideline received a penalty with no time left on the clock. That allowed the Royals one additional play. They scored a touchdown, and decided to go for the two-point conversion which they made. It was an exciting, albeit controversial ending to the game.
Last season’s affair failed to live up to the hype from the previous contest. The Royals handled the Cobbers, dominating the line of scrimmage on their way to a 45-22 win.
This game will give both teams the opportunity to make a statement about who is the top dog in the division. It is likely that the winner of this game will find itself atop the conference standings with Gustavus Adolphus, who plays Carleton on Saturday and is also 2-0 in the MIAC. This is each team’s chance to solidify an undefeated record in the MIAC before facing the Gusties in November.
By Robert Pannier