There are three things that the St. John’s Johnnies do exceptionally well: keep opponents from scoring, create turnovers and run the ball. All of those things they were able to do on Saturday, but they added another big dimension to Saturday’s 31-8 win over the Bethel Royals – the big pass play.
The Johnnies were the clear victor on this day, but it didn’t start out looking that way. The Royals took the opening kickoff and moved to the St. John’s 38 in five plays, but the drive stalled and put Bethel at fourth and one. They decided to go for it, and were going to send RB Bridgeport Tusler on a sweep, but QB Erik Peterson’s pitch was behind Tusler and he was unable to corral it in. The ball was lose and recovered by the Johnnies.
Five plays later St. John’s was forced to punt, and the Royals began at their own 15. Again they moved the ball well with Peterson completing a big pass play to Bryce Marquardt for 30-yards and another to the younger Marquardt for 14 more. On second and goal, older brother Brandon Marquardt took the ball on a sweep and looked like he was going to score, but DB Randy Perez pushed him out about a half-yard way from the goal line. While it didn’t look too significant at the time, that one single play may have been the biggest play of the game. It was one of many great plays Perez made in this contest. On third and goal Marshall Klitzke was stuffed for no gain. The Royals decided to go for it, but the defense stuffed Tusler for a one-yard loss and the ball was in the Johnnies hands.
This has been a trademark of this defense all season. They will bend, but when a team reaches near their goal line they step up like no other. A point that Perez was happy to espouse. “Our defense is just relentless. We bend back but we have never been broken. We just play strong when teams get in deep and our commitment is to stop them from scoring.”
The stop had a major effect on the Johnnies offense. They took the ball from their own two, and moved quickly down the field. Surprisingly it was not their big back, Sam Sura, who was doing the damage, but was their junior quarterback, Nick Martin. Sura carried the ball on the first five plays, gaining 22 yards, then Martin took over. His first pass of the drive was a 15-yarder to Zack Sundry. On the next play he went up top and found Evan Clark for a 53-yard strike down the sideline to the Bethel eight-yard line. On the next play Martin found J.T. Ford in the back of the end zone and just like that the Johnnies had a 7-0 lead.
For Martin it was a coming out of sorts. The previous week he had just six pass attempts and one completion, but the coaches wanted to feature the junior signal caller more this week and it paid off. “We had run a lot this season so far, but the coaches planned for me to throw a lot more in this game,” Martin explains. “They put a good portion of this game on my shoulders and I was glad I rewarded their confidence in me.”
Martin did reward his coaches, going 4-4 in the first quarter for 76-yards. He was not through by any stretch of the imagination.
The next three series were dominated by the defenses. Bethel was held to a three-n-out on each of their next two possession, and St. John’s was three plays and out on their next one. The defensive battle continued for much of the second quarter, but the Royals finally started putting a drive together just before the end of the half. Beginning at their own 11-yard line, Peterson began to find some open receivers, moving the ball to his own 42. However, on a third and two play, his pass was tipped at the line and intercepted by Ben Rossini, giving the Johnnies the ball at the Royals 39-yard line with 59 seconds left in the half.
Martin’s first pass went incomplete, but he completed his next four moving the ball down the field. His fourth completion found Dan Harrington in the end zone. Harrington bobbled it for a moment, but then hauled it in for the touchdown and the 14-0 lead. The junior was on fire, gaining 39 more yards and went into half 9-14 for 124 yards and two touchdowns.
The second half began with the ball in the hands of the Johnnies offense, and they would extend the lead. Sura carried the ball 8 times on the 10 play drive for 25 yards. His score from three-yards out made it 21-0 and took 5:30 off of the clock.
On Bethel’s first possession of the half they moved the ball into St. John’s territory with a 17-yard completion by Peterson to Drew Neuville and runs by the quarterback and Klitzke, but on first and 10, Peterson was popped after a two-yard gain and fumbled. Carter Hanson recovered and the Johnnies were back in business.
The St. John’s offense then began a 12-play drive that moved them to Bethel 25, where it would reach fourth and nine. The Johnnies decided to go for it, but CB Josh Treimer made an outstanding play to knock the ball down and turn the ball over on downs.
For Treimer it was a bitter sweet day. The senior was hurt on the first series of the game, and hobbled for much of the afternoon on a twisted ankle, but he gutted it out with incredible perseverance, finishing with seven tackles and three pass break-ups.
Bethel had the ball again with 53 seconds left in the quarter, and were desperately in need of a score, however, on the third play of the drive Perez picked off Peterson’s pass and returned it to the Bethel 30. A late hit call moved the ball to the 14, and the Johnnies could smell blood.
This game was a match-up of the two best secondaries in the MIAC, and Perez showed why the Johnnies are so good. The junior finished with five tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. “It’s easy to play defense when you have such a great D-Line like we do. They put a great amount of pressure on the quarterback, so that they create mistakes for us.”
With a short field, the Johnnies looked like they were in prime position to score their fourth touchdown, but the Royals defense gutted out a huge stop, forcing a field goal attempt. The 24-yarder was nailed by Alexi Johnson and it was 24-0.
If anyone thought the Royals were going to put their tail between their legs and accept defeat, they were kidding themselves. This is Bethel after all, and they have the reigning MVP. He showed why on the next drive. Peterson’s first pass attempt fell incomplete and then he threw a four-yard completion to Lance Dozier to set up a third and six. On the next play the senior went up top and found Bryce Marquardt, who caught the ball at about the 15, broke a tackle and scored to put the Royals on the board. The two-point conversion was good and it was 24-8.
When the Johnnies were stopped on their next possession and the Royals got the ball back, the excitement began to mount. Could the Royals come back? Three quick completions by Peterson and a three-yard run by the QB put the ball at midfield. However, three plays later the Royals were looking at a fourth and two, and opted to go for it. Peterson’s pass was set up perfectly, but the ball was dropped ending the drive.
This was time for Martin to go for the dagger. Sam Sura carried the ball twice for five yards setting up a third and five. Earlier in the game on a third down play, the team had opted to remain on the ground, but not on this play. They were going to roll the dice with their quarterback and the number came up 49. That is a 49-yard pass play that put the Johnnies at the Bethel one-yard line. Martin’s pass was an absolute thing of beauty as it dropped perfectly into the hands of Josh Bungum in stride. Two plays later Sura scored up the middle and it was 31-8.
The Royals mounted one more drive moving to the St. John’s 13. There they faced a fourth and four. Peterson faded back to pass, but Sam Brynestad broke through the line and got some big pressure on the Royals quarterback, forcing him to throw a wobbly pass that fell incomplete. Three knees later and the game was over.
The victory was a huge one for the Johnnies who now move into the driver’s seat for the MIAC title. While the running attack produced 134 yards, it was their quarterback that proved to be the difference in this game. In the preview of this contest in the Minor League Sports Report, we suggested that if the Johnnies QB made less than 20 pass attempts, St. John’s was going to be in prime position to win. Martin finished 10-18 for 173 yards and two touchdowns. After the game the QB talked about what it felt to beat the reigning conference MVP.
“I googled him last night and was looking at all these articles about how he was the MVP and everything. Don’t get me wrong. He is a great quarterback, but I wanted to come out here and be better than him today, and I think I was.”
Sam Sura finished with 40 carries for 119 yards. He also scored two touchdowns, moving his conference leading total to 14 on the season.
On defense St. John’s recovered three fumbles and picked off two passes. They held the vaunted Royals Three Kings running backs to just 104 yards, nearly 80 fewer than their combined season average, and did not allow them to score. Two red zone possessions for Bethel led to no points, and showed how amazing this team is deep in their own end.
Besides the outstanding performance by Treimer, several other Royals defensive players made incredible contributions in a losing effort. Dan Leidall was all over the place, making 14 tackles and had a pass breakup. Zach Eenhuis had 12 tackles and a sack, and David Morgan made 10 tackles. The score was a poor indication of how good this defense played. They were simply outstanding.
Next week St. John’s travels to St. Olaf. A win and they are the conference champs. Bethel welcomes Augsburg. They must win and get a St. John’s loss to win the crown.
By Robert Pannier