With Gustavus Adolphus Offense Grounded, Gusties Turn to Defense to Clinch Victory
There is an old adage in football that says that any team can win on any given day, but that is often times what broadcasters and media pundits say to keep an audience’s attention for a game that has blowout written all over it. Saturday the Gustavus Adolphus Gusties almost learned how true that old adage can be.
The Gusties entered the game on a roll, riding the aerial wave of one of the most prolific passing attacks in college sports. Air Marshall Mitch Hendricks and his group of Aces have been putting up video game numbers all season long on their way to 5-0 record entering the contest. Entering their game against St. Olaf they had scored at least 42-points in every contest, and their average margin of victory was 32.6 points.
The Oles entered the game on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. They were 0-5, had scored just 40 total points in their five games, and were coming off a 69-7 thrashing at the hands of St. Thomas. They had been outscored in their last three games 161-21, and their average margin of loss was 31.8 points.
If ever there was a game that had the earmarks of big blowout, this seemed to be the one. The best team in the conference statistically versus the worst team statistically. All that seemed to be in question was if the computer could handle the numbers the Gusties would put up.
A funny thing happened on the way to that perceived game however. St. Olaf put up a performance for the ages, and it took the GAC defense having a big day of their own to bring home this victory.
St. Olaf grabbed the lead on their second possession of the game. The Gusties had driven to the St. Olaf 21, but running back DaiVon Poole was stopped on a fourth and two play, turning the ball over on downs. From there QB Nate Penz and running back J.J. Strnad went to work. Strnad carried the ball four times for 12 yards on the drive, and Penz completed a 13-yard pass to Strnad and a 54-yard strike to Joel Reinhardt to give the Oles the early 7-0 lead. It was a huge confidence boost to the St. Olaf team.
While they were feeling pretty high, Gustavus Adolphus turned to their playbook for one of their favorite standards – the response. The Gusties are known for responding with a score of their own following a touchdown against them, and they did not disappoint on this day. Following the Oles score, GAC moved 58-yards in seven-plays, and scored on a two-yard run by Leeland Lauti to tie the game. QB Mitch Hendricks, the Air Marshall, completed all three of his passes, including a 32-yard pass to George Buchner on third and two that put the Gusties at the St. Olaf five-yard line.
The GAC defense would hold the Oles on their next possession, putting the ball back in Hendricks hands, but the coaches decided to feature Lauti more on the drive, and he delivered for them. The running back carried the ball eight times in the 16-play drive, gaining 42-yards, and scoring from one-yard out to give the Gusties the lead. Hendricks completed just two of five passes on the drive, but he had a huge 24-yard run on fourth and nine that gave the Gusties a first down inside the St. Olaf 10-yard line. From there Lauti carried most of the load for the score.
The Oles are good students, and they had seen how the Gusties had responded to an earlier score of theirs, so they decided to demonstrate what they had learned. Following the GAC score, St. Olaf went on an eight-play, 68-yard drive that was capped off by a one-yard score by Strnad to tie the game. Penz had three huge completions on the drive of 21-, 23- and 32-yards. The drive took just 2:39 off the clock and showed that the Oles could score quickly behind their QB when they needed to.
Ah, but the Art of the Response is really a Gustavus Adolphus technique, and so it was time to employ it again. Since St. Olaf had responded to a Gusties score, Hendricks showed them how the master does it. He led the team on an eight-play, 70-yard drive that took 2:19 before his seven-yard pass to Sky Ace Gabriel Boyce put GAC back on top. The Air Marshall was 5-6 on the drive for 54-yards and the score. The extra-point was blocked and returned by the defense for the two-point score, making it a 20-16 game.
The Gusties defense forced a quick three-n-out, putting the ball right back in Hendricks hands. Hendricks passed the ball to Lauti for 12 yards on the first play of the drive, and then GAC got 15 more yards on a pass interference call. On the next play Hendricks found a streaking Gabriel Boyce for a touchdown, and it looked like the Gusties were going to run away with the game.
Each team had the ball one more time before half, but neither one was able to move the ball effectively. They went to half with Gustavus Adolpus leading 27-16, and looking like their aerial show was just getting started. After all, they were clearly the “better” team, but no one told that to the Oles. This is a team with talent and a lot of heart, and they were ready to go to war.
St. Olaf was stopped on their first drive of the second half, and the Gusties were ready to ride the arm of their Air Marshall to try to turn this game into a rout. Hendricks led an 11-play, 88-yard drive where he completed all seven of his pass attempts, the last of which went for an 11-yard score to Gabriel Boyce. Lauti added an impressive ground component to the drive, gaining 29-yards on five-carries. The score was 34-16, and it looked like GAC was done “toying” with St. Olaf.
That may have been the case, but the Oles had plans of their own. They began with a response to the Gusties touchdown. Strnad carried the ball on the first four plays of the drive, gaining 24 yards and giving St. Olaf two first downs. Penz then completed three straight passes before scrambling for 26 more on a second and four play that put the ball at the GAC four-yard line. Penz lost seven-yards to move the ball back, but on third and goal from the 10-yard line, Strnad broke a couple of tackles on his way to the end zone to make the score 34-22.
It remained that way into the fourth quarter until Thomas Schleusener hit a 21-yard field goal for the Gusties to increase their lead to 37-22.
The Oles began their next drive at their own 12, but on a fourth and 10 play from their own 39, Penz was picked off by Zach Burrington. It was a huge play by the defense that looked like the final nail in the coffin, but Hendricks first pass was intercepted by Coleman Foley, giving the Oles the ball right back at their own 30-yard line. They would take full advantage of this opportunity.
In 1:12, Penz led St. Olaf on a five-play, 70-yard drive that culminated in an 11-yard pass to Reinhardt for the score. The Oles QB completed three of his four passes on the drive for 60-yards and St. Olaf was just one score away from tying this game up. It was an experience that the Gusties were clearly not used to, and when St. Olaf recovered the onside kick at the GAC 45, the biggest upset of the conference season was looking quite likely. Time for a huge defensive stop.
With 4:08 left in the game and 45-yards away from the end zone, the Oles got a first down on a fourth and three play when Penz hit Alex Nelson for a five-yard gain to the 33-yard line. A 10-yard completion to Strnad on third and six gave St. Olaf another first down, this time at the 19-yard line. St. Olaf was making play-after-play, but on first and 10 Adam Neubarth made a great move and sacked Penz for an eight-yard loss, setting up second and 18. After a dropped pass, the Oles gained 10-yards on a screen to Nelson to make it fourth and eight at the 17-yard line.
A big fourth down play, and an opportunity for the Gusties defense to deliver a huge statement that this is not just an offensive team. This is a team that plays two-way football. Penz took the snap and was looking for the score, but Xavier Fust read the play beautifully and picked the ball off at the one to preserve the victory.
A great deal had not been asked of the Gusties defense so far this season, but they had shown in the previous week that they can bring it when they shutout the Carleton Knights. On this day that defensive fire was needed and they delivered with two huge late interceptions that helped preserve the victory.
The Gusties defense put up some incredibly solid numbers on the day. They had three sacks, a forced fumble and two interceptions to go along with four pass break-ups. Zack Martinez led the team with 11 tackles.
On offense it was a rather pedestrian day for Hendricks by his standards as he passed for 282 yards and three scores. Lauti had 123 yards on the ground on 21 carries and scored two times. Gabriel Boyce was the leading receiver with nine catches for 125 yards and three scores.
For the Oles, Strnad had 145 yards on the ground and two touchdowns. Nelson and Reinhardt both went over 100 yards receiving, Nelson with 128 and Reinhardt with 105 and two scores. Penz finished with 296 yards passing and two touchdown passes.
The victory was a huge win for Gustavus Adolphus, who now face a brutal end to their schedule. They welcome the 4-1 St. John’s Johnnies before facing the 4-1 Bethel Royals at home. They then go on the road to face the 5-1 Concordia Cobbers before finishing the season at 4-1 St. Thomas. It is a true gauntlet to end the season, and the Gusties are going to need four great outings from their defense if they are going to pull this one out. They showed today they are ready to deliver.
By Robert Pannier