There is nothing like a little math to start out an article about football. For some they would say that the only number that matters in football is the one on the scoreboard, but the unbelievable contest between the Bethel Royals and St. Thomas Tommies could not possibly be described with a simple listing of the score. It was a game that saw the Royals Three Kings running backs make huge plays when needed, the Bethel defense step up to create three turnovers, and Tommies Coach Glenn Caruso roll the dice on a couple of moves that nearly led to his team making a comeback for the ages.
This was a game of halves. The first-half saw the Royals come out on-fire and dominate both sides of ball and special teams.
The Tommies received the opening kickoff. Nick Waldvogel took the ball from his own five and looked like he may find a seam to make a good return, but freshman Cortez Stanley made a great shoestring tackle to bring down Waldvogel at the 20. From there Will Van Duzer forced St. Thomas quarterback Matt O’Connell into a hurried pass on first down that fell incomplete and on second down RB Jack Kaiser was stopped by safety David Morgan for a three-yard gain. That set-up a third and seven. O’Connell faded back to pass and looked to his right trying to hit the big play on a post-pattern, but Josh Treimer read the play perfectly and made a great play to intercept the pass, giving his offense the ball at the Tommies 47.
The drive for Bethel looked like it was going to stall when a holding penalty on first down put the Royals in a first and 20. They got nine of the yards back, but were still faced with a third and 11. The coaching staff reached into their bag of tricks, having QB Erik Peterson throw to fullback Marshall Klitzke on a screen play that Klitzke turned into a 14-yard gain and first down. Klitzke had caught just nine passes all season, and the coaches dialed up a play to him at the perfect time. Five plays later it was Klitzke again, this time pushing his way through the line for a 4-yard touchdown run and a 7-0 Royals lead.
It was the first touchdown of the day for the Three Kings. This dynamic group of running backs, which also includes Brandon Marquardt and Bridgeport Tusler, would play a huge part in the game. The dynamic group was on the board with their first touchdown when the King of Clubs (Klitzke) scored.
The Tommies looked like they would respond right away. O’Connell completed four straight passes to begin the drive and rushed for 15 more that helped move the team to the Royals 17. There the home team’s defense really stepped up. Jack Kaiser rushed twice for nine yards to create a third and one, but O’Connell’s pass fell incomplete, setting up a fourth and one from the Royals eight. Kaiser got the ball again, but safety Dan Leidall came up and stuffed the Tommies running back, turning the ball over on downs.
The Royals would go three and out on their drive and it looked like St. Thomas was going to get great field position, but Philip Peterson’s punt was a good one and finally rolled out of bounds fifty yards later. That gave the Tommies the ball on their own 47. O’Connell’s first pass fell incomplete, and on second and 10, Morgan read the pass from the St. Thomas quarterback perfectly, intercepting the ball and giving it back to his offense at their own 29.
From there the Royals went on a 10-play, 71-yard drive that ended with an eight-yard touchdown run from the King of Hearts, Bridgeport Tusler, to give Bethel a 14-0 lead. Peterson was three of four on the drive for 36 yards and Marquardt had a huge 15-yard carry.
St. Thomas received the kickoff and started to move the ball again, however O’Connell’s pass on third and four was dropped by the receiver forcing the Tommies to punt. Pete Fitzsimmons kick went out at the 17 making it a very long field for the Royals. They were up to the challenge.
Peterson and Tusler did the bulk of the heavy lifting on the drive, with Tusler carrying the ball three times and Peterson having a 12-yard carry for a first down as well, as completing three of four passes for 59-yards. His last pass was a 27-yard strike to Tusler that could not have been dropped into the hands of the speedy back any better if Peterson has handed it to him. It was a thing of beauty that was just over the head of the defender and dropped right into Tusler’s arms for the score. It was 21-0 and this game looked like it was going to be a rout.
The Tommies attempted to mount one last drive before the half, moving 65-yards in 13-plays, but O’Connell was forced to hurry his throw with Jesse Moeckly chasing after him, and his pass fell incomplete on fourth and six, turning the ball over on downs. Peterson would then take a knee to end the half.
St. Thomas was completely dominated in the first-half, turning the ball over twice on interceptions, twice more on downs, and punting once in their five possessions. Bethel was in complete control of the game, but the Tommies had two things going for them: they had held the vaunted rushing attack of the Royals to 77 total yards and they had Glenn Caruso as coach.
St. Thomas came out of the break fired up and their defense forced a three-and-out. When the Tommies offense took the field, Coach Caruso switched to John Gould at quarterback, and the move paid off immediately. The junior quarterback led his offense on a 10-play, 51-yard drive was capped off by a five-yard touchdown pass to Cole Kelly on fourth and two for the score.
While the Royals had a 14-point lead, the touchdown seemed to take the air out of Bethel’s sails for a few reasons. First and foremost was that Waldvogel was finding room to run as he had six-carries for 36-yards on the drive. The fourth and two touchdown play also gave the Tommies offense some much needed confidence that they could come up with the big-play. The feeling grew even bigger when Coach Caruso rolled the dice on the kickoff, choosing to go with the onside kick that his team recovered and the ball was back in Gould’s hands.
While the pervious drive was led by Waldvogel, Gould was the star of this one. He completed all three of his pass attempts for 49-yards, and more importantly when the pocket was breaking down he made great moves to extend the play and even had back-to-back carries for eight total yards. The Tommies moved the ball to the Bethel one-yard line where Waldvogel scored on a burst off-tackle to pull St. Thomas within seven.
On Bethel’s next offensive series they were forced into another three-n-out, putting the ball back into Gould’s hands, and it looked like he was going to lead them to the Promised Land again. Starting from his own 19-yard line he helped move the ball to the St. Thomas 44, but on a third and five play Royals linebacker Kevin Flaherty made what may have been the play of the game when he batted down a pass intended for Charlie Dowdle to force the Tommies to punt. St. Thomas’ offense had finally been stopped, and this gave the Bethel bench a lot more spunk.
Neither team was able to do anything with their next possessions, but Bethel followed that with a drive that saw their offense begin to take charge again. Peterson had three quick completions for 37-yards, but his third completion was stripped by Tommies defensive back Mozus Ikuenobe and recovered by Ben Celichowski at the St. Thomas 17, giving Gould another chance with the ball.
On the first play of the possession Will Van Duzer shed his blockers and made a great move to reach Waldvogel, and with the assistance of Ben Wahlquist they were able to pull the back down for no gain. That set up a second and 10. Gould faded back to pass looking to make a big play, but Wahlquist made a big play of his own, picking off the pass and returning it to the St. Thomas 38-yard line. Afterward Van Duzer spoke about the series. “This is a big-game and we all need to step up and make big plays. That was my chance to have an impact and I made it. Ben then had his chance and he did the same. That is what makes this team so great. When we need it, guys make plays out there.”
The field looked like it was tilting against the Royals, and they needed a big-play from their offense. Time to return to the King of Clubs. Peterson handed the ball to Klitzke who burst off-tackle to his left and then raced down the sidelines for the score. The back burst into the end zone and the Royals bench came alive. It was a confidence booster the team really needed, and it was not surprising to see one of their Three Kings step up to make a big-play.
Ironically enough the play almost blew up when the hand-off didn’t come to Klitzke right away. “I almost didn’t get the ball, EP (Erik Peterson) wasn’t able to give it to me right away and I was like ‘Give me the ball,’ and he got it to me. I then made that spin move. I don’t know how that happened, it just happened and it was just a foot race to the end zone from there.” The King of Clubs acknowledged how big the score was. “A huge moment, one of my most favorite moments of the season for sure. It was a huge momentum shifter.” Klitzke was absolutely correct. A bench that began to look a little worried came to life, and the touchdown would actually become a pivotal score in the game.
On their next possession, Gould responded to his interception by leading the Tommies on an eight-play, 73-yard drive that cut the deficit back to seven. The junior quarterback completed all six passes on the drive, including a 15-yard pass to Dowdle on fourth and six for the score.
Bethel was in the lead, but that was getting awfully precarious and looked even more so on the Royals next possession. On a first and 10 play, Paul Graupner was able to shed his blocker and sack Peterson, stripping the ball and forcing a fumble. The ball lay on the ground at the Royals five and if the Tommies would have recovered that may have been the boulder that crushed the spirit of the team, but offensive lineman Bubba Friedlund raced to the ball first and fell on it to keep the ball in his offense’s hands. That was a game-saving play to say the least.
After forcing a punt, the St. Thomas’ offense moved 18-yards in six plays before being forced to settle for a field goal. Defensive backs Dan Leidall and Matt Mehlhorn both made outstanding plays to force the field goal attempt, which Graupner hit to make it 28-24. The fact that St. Thomas had to settle for a field goal made Friedlund’s play that much more important. He literally saved the lead.
It was 28-24 with 7:38 left in the game. The Bethel Royals defense had given their all, and they needed their offense to hang onto the ball and secure the victory. They needed the Three Kings to show why they are the dynamic trio that they are.
Marquardt rushed for four yards on first down, but Peterson’s second down pass went incomplete. On third and six he found Tusler over the middle in the flat and the freshman back broke two tackles before finally being brought down, however, by the time he was the Royals had a first down. Klitzke gained seven yards on the next play, and then Marquardt got four more to make give the team another first down. The Royals were keeping the ball, and the clock was ticking.
Marquardt carried the ball for three more yards on the next play, and then Peterson got three of his own on the ground. That set-up a third and four, but Klitzke was stopped two yards short making it fourth and two at Bethel’s 49 with about three minutes left in the game. This left an interesting decision for Royals Coach Steve Johnson as to whether to punt and pin the Tommies deep or attempt to go for the first down. Failing to do so would give St. Thomas the ball at midfield with three timeouts left. Time for Coach Johnson to do a little dice rolling of his own. He decided to go down swinging, and when Peterson found Klitzke for a seven-yard gain, the choice proved sound.
Tusler and Klitzke ran the ball on the next three plays, gaining 12-yards and giving the Royals another first down. From there the coaches decided to turn to their bruising fullback to carry the load the rest of the way. His next two carries he gained three yards, and on a third and seven there was a hole that he looked like he was going to burst through for the first down, but a lineman’s foot tripped Klitzke and he would fall three yards short of the first. That brought up fourth and three at the St. Thomas 25-yard line. Decision time again and Coach Johnson was ready to play the odds.
To this point Klitzke and Tusler had delivered a combined total of four touchdowns. It was time for the King of Diamonds to come through and clinch the game for his team. Peterson handed the ball on a sweep to Marquardt, who burst to his right and went down the sideline, untouched, for the score. It was 35-24 with just a few seconds left in the game. The Three Kings had delivered early and they had closed out the game.
Peterson finished the day 15-25 for 196 yards and a touchdown for the Bethel Royals. Gould came up big in relief, completing 12-17 passes for 121 yards and two scores. On the ground Klitzke led the way with 15 carries for 86 yards and two touchdowns. Marquardt added 57 more and his game clinching TD, and Tusler had 28 yards rushing, 58 receiving and two scores giving him a team leading 10 for the season. Waldvogel had 82 yards on the ground for the Tommies and Jack Gilliland had eight catches for 102 yards.
On defense St. Thomas was led by Tim McClanahan who had 12 tackles. Morgan had 12 tackles to lead the Royals and Mathis had 10 more.
After the game Mathis was emotional about the victory. “I am overwhelmed right now. A lot going on within me. These are tears of joy. This is just an emotional high, a great win for us. We held onto the rope and pulled out the victory. We showed a lot of heart here today.”
This was one of the most exciting games of the season and Coach Johnson couldn’t have been prouder of his team. “Our team battled today, they battled for each other, they battled for this university. I couldn’t be prouder of the way that they hung tough and kept fighting to the end.”
The loss drops St. Thomas to 5-2. They host Concordia next week in a game they will need to stay eligible for the playoffs. With the win the Bethel Royals moved to 6-1, 5-0 in the conference. Next week they travel south to play Gustavus Adolphus in the Minor League Sports Report MIAC Featured Game of the Week. Look for player articles and a preview of the game in this upcoming week.