The St. John’s Johnnies rolled into Gustavus Adolphus on Saturday looking to put an end to the aerial assault that has been the Gusties offense. To do so they needed to go to the ground to control the game, and that is what they did, riding the powerful legs of Sam Sura to pull out a stunning victory that dropped the Gusties from the ranks of the unbeaten.
Prior to Saturday’s game, the Minor League Sports Report said that two things needed to happen for the Johnnies to pull out the upset. They needed to get at least 140 yards from Sura, and they needed to hold the Gusties to less than 11 possessions. Mission accomplished. Sura had his third 200-rushing yard game of the season, this time a 205 yard day, and the Gusties had just 10 possessions in the loss. The Johnnies controlled the clock with a punishing ground game that gained 300 yards on the day and helped St. John’s to maintain control of the ball for 32:36.
The day began with it looking like Air Marshall Mitch Hendricks and his group of aerial Aces were going to dominate this game. The Gusties took the opening kickoff and marched 75-yards in 13-plays for the score. Hendricks six-yard touchdown pass to his sky Ace Matt Boyce gave GAC the 7-0 lead less than five minutes into the game.
On the Johnnies opening possession they actually moved backwards, losing two yards and going three-and-out before being forced to punt. With the ball back in Hendricks hands the Gusties moved 55-yards on 14-plays, but settled for a 26-yard field goal that made the score 10-0 with just 1:46 left in the first quarter. It was as dominating a start as Gustavus Adolphus could have asked for, and it was quickly looking like the Johnnies were going to go staggering home from a crushing loss.
These are the St. John’s Johnnies, however, and they stagger to no opponent. Down by 10, St. John’s began a drive at their own 31 that lasted 12-plays and 5:03 on the clock before Sura scored from one-yard out to cut the deficit to 10-7. Eight of the 12-plays were carries by Sura who gained 39 yards on the drive.
GAC looked like they were going to get right back on the scoreboard when Hendricks hit Matt Boyce for a 61-yard pass, but the drive stalled at the St. John’s four-yard line, forcing a field goal that was missed. The missed opportunity in the red zone became a key reason why the Gusties would fall this day.
St. John’s could not move the ball again, and were forced into a three-n-out, putting the Gusties in great position. They began at their own 49-yard line and Hendricks moved the ball down the field, completing four of seven passes, but on second and goal from the St. John’s five yard line, Trevor Warner picked-off Hendricks pass to end the threat. For the Johnnies it was their ninth interception of the season, tied for first in the conference, and their 15th takeaway, which leads the Minnesota Intercollegiate Conference (MIAC). Unfortunately for the Gusties the totals would increase.
While the defense was coming up big, the St. John’s offense was having trouble getting going. The Johnnies had the ball five times in the first half, and three times they were forced to punt after just three plays. Their only big drive came on the touchdown drive, and their other drive was a four-play drive that ended with the half.
The Gusties would increase their lead just before half. Thomas Schleusener hit a 27-yard field goal with 19 second left to make the score 13-7. It was good that the home team could add points before half, but the missed opportunities hurt and would play a key role in the defeat.
The first-half had been dominated by the Gusties but they led by just six. Now it was time for the Johnnies to flex their muscles and that is what they did. On the opening drive of the second-half, Sura and quarterback Nick Martin moved the ball almost exclusively on the ground, going 53-yards in eight-plays before they were held by the Gusties defense at the GAC 20-yard line. Alexi Johnson drilled a 37-yard field goal to make it 13-10.
On the next drive for the Gusties, Kyler Trinka forced a fumble that was recovered by the Johnnies Sean Tillman at the GAC 36-yard line. Seven plays later Sura burst in from one-yard out to put the Johnnies on top, and the game was beginning to take on a very one-sided feel to it.
Gustavus Adolphus was forced to punt after three plays on their next possession, and once again Sura was ready to carry the load to keep the ball in the hands of his offense. After a 37-yard punt, the Johnnies began the drive at their own 35. With Sura carrying the ball five times for 59 yards, including two carries of 15-yards and another one of 22, the Johnnies offensive line was starting to wear down the Gustavus Adolphus defense. It looked like the Johnnies were going to punch the ball in for the score, but a huge sack by Ortiz Hidalgo cost St. John’s 15-yards, creating a third and 25. The Johnnies stayed on the ground to make a slightly easier field goal for Mitch Feske, who put it through the uprights for the 20-13 lead.
Down by seven it was time for the Air Marshall to respond, and that is just what he did. The Gusties QB completed all three of his pass attempts, the last of which was a 26-yarder to Matt Boyce to put GAC within one, but the extra point was blocked by Sam Brynestad. The ball was picked up by Trevor Warner who returned it for the two-point conversion, giving St. John’s a 22-19 lead.
It was time for Sura and Martin to kill off some clock time and keep the two combined to carry the ball all ten plays of the drive, with Martin scoring from five-yards out to make the score 29-19.
Hendricks looked like he was going to do what he does best, which is respond, but an eight-play, 85-yard drive ended when Hendricks’ pass was tipped and intercepted by Andrew Norri at the goal line to keep the lead 10.
With one more chance to try to get back into the game, Hendricks moved the ball quickly down the field, gaining 62-yards in just 50 seconds, but his pass intended for Matt Boyce in the end zone was intercepted by Norri again, sealing the victory.
The Gusties outgained the Johnnies by over 100 yards (466-355), yet the four turnovers were incredibly costly, and were the primary reason why GAC fell. Hendricks had another big day offensively, completing 31 passes for 355 yards and two scores. Matt Boyce caught nine of those passes for 158 and two touchdowns. Brother Gabriel had nine catches for 89 yards.
Nick Martin completed just three passes for 56 yards, but he added 55 more on the ground. Sura had another huge day with 205 yards on 32 carries and two scores. Norri was a monster on defense, not only picking off two passes, but also leading the team with nine tackles on the day.
The matchup was going to be a battle between the high powered offense of the Gusties and the play-making secondary of St. John’s. On this day the defensive backs made a huge impact, and proved that they had the weapons to stop the Gustavus Adolphus aerial assault. The defense gave up big yards again, but like they have done all season, they made plays when it mattered.
The win by St. John’s moves the Johnnies to 5-1, while the Gusties fall for the first time this season to drop to 6-1. The Johnnies will welcome Carleton to Collegeville next weekend, while the Gusties have the week off to prepare for Bethel. The Bethel-Gustavus Adolphus Game will be the MIAC Featured Game of the Week.
By Robert Pannier