Two years ago, the Bethel Royals won a 14-13 thriller on a controversial play that gave them one last play after time expired. They scored a touchdown, converted the two-point conversion and won the game. This year the Royals had no desire to give the Concordia Cobbers any impression that it was going to take last second heroics to pull this one out. Bethel rode a stout defense and got a very special return from their star running back in a 27-17 victory.
This was a battle of premium heavy-weights. Both teams were ranked in both Division-III polls, and a victory would most certainly make the winning team the one to beat in the conference. In addition, Bethel entered the game riding an 11-game in-conference winning streak, while Concordia was 4-0 this season. It had the makings of a great battle, and neither team disappointed.
Concordia received the opening kickoff, but on their second play Matt Melhorn forced a fumble and the Royals recovered. It looked like Bethel was going to jump out in front early, but the Cobbers defense held tough, holding the Royals to just one yard and forcing them to punt.
On the Cobbers next possession QB Griffin Neal got Concordia moving from their own seven. Neal completed all four passes for 33 yards, but on a third and six play at mid-field Neal’s pass only went for two yards. The Cobbers looked like they were going to go for it, but Neal punted the ball and it was downed at the Bethel 13.
Despite starting deep in their own territory, the Royals moved the ball quickly, grabbing huge chunks of yardage along the way. QB Erik Peterson’s first pass went to RB Bridgeport Tusler, who broke a couple of tackles for 40-yards before being taken down. Two plays later RB Brandon Marquardt grabbed 25 more on the ground to move the ball to the Concordia 23. Just three plays had moved the Royals 64 yards. On first and 10 Peterson found Drew Neuville for a 23-yard score. The extra-point was no good, but Bethel led 6-0.
The Cobbers quickly responded, and once again it was their star quarterback who led the drive. Beginning at their own 25-yard line, Concordia started a 17-play drive that took 7:54 off the clock, and with the extra-point put the Cobbers ahead. Neal had struggled during the series, throwing five straight incompletions at one point, but his last completion went for 23-yards on a third and 20 play down to the Royals nine. Three plays later Neal hit Jon Baune for a six-yard score.
The drive had worn down the Bethel defense, and they needed a long drive from their offense to give their defensive players a little breather. That wouldn’t be the case, however, it didn’t appear that they were too upset about it. On the kick-off following the Concordia touchdown, Marquardt built up a head of steam and made a few great moves before going 94-yards for the score. It was Marquardt’s second week in a row that he had returned a kick-off for a score, and his big play had put the Royals right back on top, 13-7.
Despite having only about a three minute break, the Royals defense looked inspired by the big play, and shutdown Concordia’s offense, holding them to just two yards and forcing them to punt. That gave Bethel the ball at their own 45-yard line, and they would ride their ground game to the end zone. The nine-play drive had six runs, and it was Three Kings back Marshall Klitzke that took the ball into the end zone from two yards out to cap the drive. That made the score 20-7, and that is how the half would end.
The Cobbers defense had played well, but they were clearly having trouble stopping the Royals offense. Meanwhile, the Court of the Bethel Defense was setting the tempo, and controlling the line of the scrimmage. On the Cobbers last possession of the half, Concordia moved to the Bethel 15, but Josh Treimer made a huge play to intercept Neal’s pass at the Bethel two-yard line to preserve the lead. The play by Treimer was clearly a game-changer and seemed to take the wind out of the Cobbers sails.
The second-half began with both teams punting on their first possessions. The defenses were starting to control the game, and the second Royals possession was no different. The Cobbers defense held them to a three-n-out, and now it was time for the Concordia special teams to shine. Philip Peterson’s punt was blocked by Tyler Ziegler and was recovered at the nine-yard line. From there Neal needed just one-play, keeping the ball on the first down play and scoring to cut the lead to 20-14.
Concordia was clearly taking control of the game, and on their next possession they would cut the deficit in half. The Cobbers defense held the Royals to another three-n-out, and a 45-yard punt gave them the ball at their own 21-yard line. It was now time for a classic Cobbers time-consuming drive.
Concordia moved 61-yards in 14-plays to the Bethel 19. From there Ben Wagner hit a 35-yard field goal to make the score 20-17. The drive had lasted 7:09, and there was no denying that the Cobbers were taking control of the game. If not for the big interception by Treimer at the end of the first half, this game would have likely been a Concordia lead.
On the Royals next possession, it looked like they were about to extend their lead, but a big defensive stop brought the drive to a screeching halt. Bethel had taken the ball from their own 35-yard line, and in three plays they had moved 36 yards to the Concordia 29. Then the Cobbers defense came up big. Two incomplete passes and a rush for no gain brought up fourth and 10, and when Peterson’s pass to Bryce Marquardt fell incomplete, it looked like the Cobbers were in business.
This also gave the Bethel defense a chance to step up their game and that is what they did. Hutchinson rushed for one-yard, and Neal’s pass on second and nine went for one more, setting up a third and eight. That is when Peterson and Kyle Asmus blew-up a running play by Brandon Zylstra, dropping him for an eight-yard loss, and forcing a punt.
Time for the Three Kings to rule the field, and the coaching staff turned the game over to Marquardt and Tusler to control the clock. QB Erik Peterson’s pass to Tusler went for eight-yards. Marquardt then had two carries for seven yards, setting up a second and seven. Peterson then turned to his running back’s brother, Bryce, for a nine yard strike and a first down. A Brandon Marquardt carry took the ball to the nine of Concordia, and from there Tusler took the ball into the end zone for the touchdown and the 27-17 lead.
The Cobbers had one more chance to get back into the game, but a 12-yard sack by Peterson on first and 10 put Concordia in a hole they could not recover from. On fourth and 13, Neal’s pass fell incomplete, sealing the win.
A fiercely contested game had come down to one thing: whose defense was going to step-up most, and that is where Bethel’s really delivered. They held the Cobbers to 249 yards of total offense, only 91 of them on the ground. The numbers were actually fairly close as the Royals only produced 262 total yards and 94 on the ground, but one category made the biggest difference – turnovers.
The Cobbers gave up a fumble and threw an interception, while the Royals did not turn over the ball at all. Neither resulted in a score for Bethel, but the interception denied the Cobbers points. At the very least this was a three point difference in the game, and could have meant as much as seven.
This game proved that Concordia is an elite team in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC). They are down in the race now, but with a win against Gustavus Adolphus later in the season and if GAC can beat Bethel it would throw Concordia right back into the race for the conference championship. Next weekend Concordia welcomes Carleton College to Moorhead. Bethel travels to Hamline University.
By Robert Pannier