Fans in Arden Hills, MN got to see the new Game of Thrones Saturday. The one on television is based on a novel that has been turned into an HBO series which follows characters through important events in European history. This Game of Thrones is on a football field where the stars are three running backs, a stellar offensive line, and a stifling defense. After losing to the Royals last season 47-0, this was a rerun of Game of Thrones that the St. Olaf Oles could have done without.
This episode began with a whole series of sub-plots that added drama before the game even began. The Oles had welcomed Bethel to Northfield last season only be shellacked 47-0. Clearly they wanted to put last season’s blowout loss in the rearview mirror. On Bethel’s side, they had seen their 11-game win streak snapped last Saturday against Wartburg, and could not afford an 0-2 start if they intended to stay in the national rankings.
The direction this game was headed was made clear early. The Oles received the ball and after a one yard gain on first down, QB Nate Penz attempted to go deep, but corner back Matt Mehlhorn made an outstanding play to knock down the ball and create a third and long. The defense held Penz to a two yard gain on a scramble, and the Oles were forced to punt. This began a cat and mouse game between punter Ezra Coughlin and Bethel return man Bridgeport Tusler. It was clear that St. Olaf wanted nothing to do with giving the ball to the speedy returner. Their strategy was to attempt to pin the Royals deep while not giving Tusler a chance to return the ball. It was not a strategy that Coughlin was winning for much of the game.
His first punt went out-of-bounds after just 25 yards. That brought the Royals offense onto the field and they decided to return to their bread-n-butter – the ground game. Turning to the Three Kings, running backs Brandon Marquardt, Sr., Marshall Klitzke and Tusler, the Royals went right at the Oles defense. Marquardt and Klitzke carried the ball all but one time on the seven play drive, with Klitzke punching it home from one yard out to stake Bethel to a 6-0 lead. Besides the scoring play, Klitzke also had a huge 31-yard run, where he burst up the middle, before cutting to his left and taking it down to the 12 of St. Olaf. From that point on the rout was on.
The Royals shutdown the St. Olaf offense again on their next drive, forcing another three-n-out series. Coughlin’s punt was returnable and Tusler made him pay for giving him a chance. The 41-yard punt was taken by the return man and returned 15 yards, which put the ball on the Bethel 49. From there the Three Kings showed why they werethe ones sitting on the throne of this game. Marquardt began the drive with a 17-yard gain where he broke several tackles. QB Erik Peterson then hit Tusler as he was coming across the middle for an 11-yard catch and another first down. From there it was Klitzke again, who took the ball off-tackle, broke a shoestring attempt to bring him down, then raced 23 yards for the score and a 12-0 lead. The Royals looked incredible to this point, with the only part of their game that was lacking was that they missed two extra points.
On the Oles next drive they finally looked like they might have a sustainable drive. Penz hit Joel Reinhardt on consecutive pass plays for the first down. Then the drive stalled and St. Olaf was forced to punt. Coughlin’s punt went 39 yards, and Tusler burst down the sideline for a 65-yard gain to the St. Olaf nine. A holding call brought the ball back to the Bethel 48, however, and for the next two quarters it was clear that St. Olaf was not going to give the speedster any more chances to burn them like that.
With a 12-0 lead, the Royals turned to their Three Kings again, primarily riding Marquardt. Bethel ran seven of nine plays with Marquardt caring the ball five times and catching a pass for nine yards. Klitzke had a 13-yard carry and Tusler had a two yard run and a two yard reception for a touchdown. The extra point was good and the score was 19-0 as the first quarter was coming to a close.
Unfortunately for the Oles the second quarter did not bring about a change for the better. Another three and out gave the ball right back to Bethel. This time to avoid Tusler, Coughlin tried to kick away from him and had a punt that only went 15-yards before being downed. That gave Bethel the ball at St. Olaf’s 44. From there it took just five plays for the team to score, with Tusler taking the ball to the house when he took the ball to the left, then made an outstanding cut back to the right and went untouched into the end zone for the 26-0 lead.
Another three and out drive gave the Royals the ball again, but their drive stalled at the one yard line when Peterson’s pass was tipped and intercepted by Riley Hedstrom. While the interception was a great play, it did not inspire a big turnaround. The Oles moved the ball just two yards before they needed to punt again, and they gave Bethel great field position.
Starting from the St. Olaf 42, the Royals got a first down, but it looked like the drive was going to stall after a holding penalty and a sack. That brought up a second and 18, which may have been too big an obstacle for most teams to overcome, but not these Royals. Peterson went back to pass and hit Marquardt on a deep post for a 40-yard touchdown and a 33-0 lead.
After another three and out forced the Oles to punt again, their defense made a stop before the end of the first half. Bethel moved the ball into position for a 43-yard field goal, but Andrew O’Reilly’s kick was blocked to end the half.
While 33-0 is a rout by any standards, the score may not have been indicative of how much Bethel was dominating this game. At the half the Oles had just 25 yards on the ground and nine total yards passing. They had just one first down and six of their seven possessions were three-n-outs. It was a dominating first half performance led by standout senior NG Will Van Duzer. The senior was dominating the play at the point of attack and it seemed that his name was being called on virtually every tackle. What made the performance all the more noteworthy was the modesty that the defensive standout showed, deflecting credit for tackles to his teammates, and humbly adding that the scorers gave him more credit than he deserved.
The second half began with Bethel receiving the ball, and Royals Coach Steve Johnson let his standout QB have one shot at a deep ball. It didn’t take long for him to lay out a perfect pass for Brandon Marquardt’s brother Bryce. After a six yard run from Brandon and a four yarder from Klitzke, Peterson got great protection from his offensive line and found younger brother Bryce wide open on a deep post for 60-yard strike and a 40-0 lead. The younger Marquardt had split both safeties and was virtually unguarded on his way down the field.
The scoring for the game would end there. Coach Johnson turned to his run game from that point on to eat out the clock, and his defense allowed just two second-half first downs in pitching the shutout. The Three Kings continued to eat up time on the clock as they ate up yards as well. This truly was a Game of Thrones for the Royals who dominated in every aspect of the game.
After last year’s 47-0 thumping, the Oles were clearly looking for a bigger showing, but were not going to receive it on this day. The Oles finished with just 85 yards of total offense as Van Duzer and his Royals Court dominated the line of scrimmage and gave Penz no time to throw the ball. St. Olaf converted just 1 of 13 third-down chances and averaged just 1.9 yards per play on the afternoon.
For Bethel it was an awesome rebound defensively after giving up 28 second-half points to Wartburg the previous week in a 31-14 loss. After the game Van Duzer talked about how the team returned to their game plan. Specifically he pointed out how Bethel had a “different mentality, a different attitude” that spurred them on to the defensive dominance. The senior defensive lineman demonstrated that mentality with five first half tackles and gave a starring performance that St. Olaf could have done without.
On offense the Royals returned to their roots with their running game dominating the contest, gaining 316 of the teams 502 total yards. Klitzke had 14 carries for 132 yards and two touchdowns. His 9.4 average was augmented by the huge holes his offensive line was creating for him, and by the broken tackles he was creating once someone did get a hand on him. After the game the junior running back spoke about how the team had decided to “get back to the basics, focusing on our power running game.” Clearly Klitzke took the power running game to a new level, breaking several tackles along the way to his big afternoon.
The other two Kings were having fine days of their own. Marquardt rushed 18 times for 117 yards and caught two passes for 49 yards and a TD. Tusler had seven carries for 57 yards and a score, and added two catches for 13 yards and a receiving touchdown. For the Three Kings of this Royals team they had a 306 yard day on the ground, 70 more through the air and five total touchdowns.
Speaking after the game Marquardt addressed how the Three Kings motivate each other. “The competition with each other pushes us to work our reps harder and to push each other,” he stated after the victory. “You can’t take plays off here with guys like Marsh (Klitzke) and Bridge (Tusler) because everyone is just as good, so they expect you to give your best on every play.”
This was a sentiment echoed by Coach Johnson, who talked about how his Three Kings could do all things, making his job as a coach much easier. “We love a complete back, and each of these guys is a complete back, so we can play any one of them in any situation.”
About his defense, Coach Johnson gave credit to the incredible scheme his defensive coordinator designed. “It’s easy to play good offense when you’re getting the ball back quickly. It was like we scored, and then boom, boom, boom, three plays and we were getting it right back. That’s the kind of play we want and expect out of our defense, and we got that today.”
Next week the Game of Thrones will travel to Carleton to face the Knights, while St. Olaf visits Concordia. For the Royals they have to be pleased that they have returned to the fundamentals of what made them one of the best programs in the country. A stymying defense, an MVP quarterback and the Three Kings carrying the ball makes them as dangerous as any team in the conference. At 1-1 they have to basically run the table if they expect to reach the playoffs again. To reach that goal will require another huge win streak by the Royals. Sounds like it is time for another Game of Thrones repeat.
By Robert Pannier
Senior Writer Covering the MIAC