This Saturday two of the powerhouse teams in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) will square off as Gustavus Adolphus heads north to battle St. John’s University. With five teams just one game apart in the conference standings, this is the first weekend of what will be a very exciting stretch run in the conference. Over the next five weeks there could be a lot of jockeying for the title and should leave the winner standing as a hardened, battle-tested squad.
The Gusties enter the contest with a bit of a chip on their shoulders and rightfully so. They are 6-0 this season and lead a conference that has four teams ranked nationally in the two Division-III football polls. Amazingly, they are not one of those teams. Despite putting up video game numbers on offense, and showcasing a defense that can play with the best of them, they are being ignored by the national writers and coaches, and clearly will want to prove that they deserve to be mentioned among the elite teams in the country.
St. John’s, on the other hand, is getting a lot of national attention, and deservedly so. At 5-1 they are ranked 24th in the AFCA Coaches poll and 22nd in the D3Football.com poll. Their only loss this season came at the hands of the Concordia Cobbers, who are ranked No. 21 in the D3Football.com poll.
The Gusties offense is ranked 13th in total yards in the country, and quarterback Mitch Hendricks is a big reason. The Air Marshall is ranked No. 1 in the country in total passing yards with 2249 and is first in touchdown passes with 27. The junior is having an absolutely phenomenal year by any standards, and is quickly establishing himself as arguably the best quarterback in Division-III football. He is not the only reason the team has looked so good, however.
Hendricks wouldn’t be completing all these passes if he didn’t have a quality set of receivers to throw to, and he most certainly has that. Matt and Gabriel Boyce are Hendricks main Aces he looks to, and the two have delivered. Matt is sixth in the country in receiving yards with 737 and Gabriel is following closely behind, ranked 10th with 699. Matt is first in all of college football in touchdown receptions with 11, and Gabriel is not far behind with eight more. These two make plays and are going to be a handful for the St. John’s defensive backs.
Gustavus Adolphus has one of the most dominant defensive groups in the MIAC. They are first in sacks with 18 and are also first with nine interceptions. This is a team with a very balanced group of defenders who can all make plays. Zack Martinez leads the team with 47 tackles, but 11 different players have recorded at least a half-sack, led by senior defensive lineman Barret Panning who has three. Six different guys have picked passes off, with Jake Forcier, Xavier Fust and Michael Hintze each recording two. This is an extremely athletic group that reads plays well and gets into position to make tackles.
The Johnnies have their own group of playmakers, and it begins with defensive lineman Matt Workman who leads the conference with four sacks. The St. John’s defense bends at times, yielding 364.6 yards per game, but they do not break. They have given up an average of 16 points per game, and are first in total turnovers with eight interceptions and six fumble recoveries. While they have a solid group overall, this may be the best group of cornerbacks in the MIAC, and it begins with Reid Bjorklund. He can make plays all over the field, and has a real knack for sniffing out the ball and wrapping up ball carriers.
On offense the Johnnies are led by tailback Sam Sura, who is fourth in Division-III football with 875 yards rushing, and also has eight rushing TDs. Sura is the kind of workhorse back that coaches love as he wears down opposing defenses and moves the chains. Nick Martin mans the quarterback position, and it is true that he does not have the gaudy numbers that Hendricks has, but he is not required to do so. The junior only averages 110.2 yards per game, but with a 65.4% completion average and just one interception he proves that he is accurate and doesn’t make mistakes to hurt his team. He is a very smart player who keeps the team’s offense moving.
This is going to be an incredibly tough challenge for Gustavus Adolphus in these last five weeks where fans are going to get to see how good they really are. There are four teams that are either tied with them in the conference race or one game back, and the Gusties will face each of those teams over the next five weeks. What that says is all they have to do is run the table and the MIAC title is theirs. That is ALL they have to do.
For the Johnnies they have a lot easier pathway to the conference title. After their battle with GAC they have four games left, but only one against the upper echelon teams of the conference, a November 8 game at home against Bethel. With the other four leaders in the MIAC all doing battle against each other in the final weeks, the Johnnies have a good shot of grabbing the title while the other teams are knocking each other off. They must look at the Gusties game as a must-win if they are going to be able to do this however.
The Johnnies need this game a little bit more than Gustavus Adolphus does, and playing at home they are going to be very difficult to beat. This will be a great contest between the incredible aerial show that is the Gusties offense and the outstanding group of defensive backs that the Johnnies have. What may really be the deciding factor of this game is how well GAC can hold down Sura. If he is able to rush for 160-plus yards and keep the ball in St. John’s hands, victory may be the Johnnies. However, if Air Marshall Hendricks and his group of Aces move the ball well and have at least 11 possessions in this game they have a real good shot of remaining undefeated and making those pollsters finally take notice.
By Robert Pannier