Larry Happel, Athletics Communications Director
DECORAH — Another Saturday and another line in the record book for the No. 10 Central College football team, which clinched at least a share of its 32nd conference title.
Back-up quarterback Brady Ketchum (freshman, Mount Vernon) combined with starter Blaine Hawkins (5th-year, Ankeny) to fire a team record nine touchdown passes in sprinting past winless Luther College 76-13 Saturday.
Central, 8-0 overall, is 6-0 in American Rivers play with two league games remaining and holds a two-game lead in the standings over Buena Vista University, Coe College the University of Dubuque and Wartburg College, who each stand 4-2. It’s the second title in a row for the Dutch, who shared the 2019 crown. (The championship was not contested during the pandemic-shortened season last spring.)
It was the 10th straight victory for the Dutch, ranked No. 9 by D3football.com and No. 10 in the AFCA poll.
Coach Jeff McMartin, whose teams have now won or shared six titles in his 18 seasons at Central, looked beyond the scoreboard.
“I thought we improved from last week,” he said. “We did a lot of things really well and did some things differently. That’s part of striving for excellence. You have to always be willing to change and adapt, and you have to continue to improve. We’re working each week to get better and not emphasize how many points we score or how many stats we get. It’s about improving and if we do that, everything else will take care of itself.”
Hawkins had his usual six touchdown passes in the first half—the fourth time in five games he’s reached that number before intermission—then ran for a score before calling it a day following the opening drive of the third quarter. It’s his fifth straight game with six or more touchdown passes and gives him a Division III-best 39 touchdown passes for the year, five shy of his 2019 school mark. He completed 20 of 27 passes Saturday for 274 yards. The yardage total drops his season average to 328.8 per game but McMartin said the Dutch had to rely more on the run and short passing game because Luther’s defense was geared towards stopping the deeper strikes.
“That’s kind of what Luther has done against us the last couple of years, but I thought we did a good job of taking what they gave us,” said McMartin.. “We kind of played small ball and it worked out great. We did a really good job of executing. We got into a good rhythm and that’s always a good sign. I was really happy with the way our guys played today.”
However, Hawkins did throw his first interception of the season. Central was one of just two Division III schools without an interception. Hawkins’ first-quarter swing pass was picked off behind the line of scrimmage by Luther’s Sam Feine who returned it untouched 47 yards for a touchdown. It ended a school-record string of 251 passes without an interception. His last interception was in a spring game with Simpson College April 3.
Hawkins now has 33 touchdown passes in league games, two under the American Rivers Conference season record of 35 set by Wyatt Hanus of the University of Dubuque in 2011.
Ketchum played the rest of the second half and had three TD passes. He connected on 12 of 17 throws for 150 yards. Central was a combined 32-of-44 passing for 424 yards despite operating without one of the team’s top receivers, Erik Knaack (5th-year, Reinbeck, Gladbrook-Reinbeck HS), who sat out with an injury.
Hawkins threw TD passes to five different receivers and six receivers had TD receptions Saturday.
“When we look back on his career, we’re going to talk about what an excellent job Blaine did of spreading the ball around and delivering the ball on time to the right guy,” McMartin said.
Ryan Neu (sophomore, West Des Moines, Valley HS) caught a career-best three TD passes and Jeff Herbers (junior, Urbandale, Des Moines Christian HS) had two. Herbers led Central with six receptions for 89 yards but it was the first game this season that the Dutch failed to have a player with 100 or more receiving yards.
“I thought Ryan (Neu) and Hayden Vroom (senior, Pella, Pella Christian HS) played really well,” McMartin said. “Not having Erik (Knaack), we needed those two guys to step up and both of them did, especially if you look at things like how they blocked and the routes they ran, things that don’t always show up statistically.”
Running backs Jason Hopp (senior, Earlham), Isaiah Walk (junior, Buffalo Center, North Iowa HS) and Evan Kelly (junior, Griswold) each had touchdown catches as well, along with tight end Billy Friis (senior, West Branch).
Kicker Logan Sunvold (sophomore, Monroe, Southeast Polk HS) connected on field goal tries of 22 and 25 yards.
Central, which led 24-7 after the first quarter and 45-7 at the break, finished with 646 yards total offense, raising its season average to 610.4 yards per game. The Dutch ran for 222 yards as Hopp, coming back from injury, had 76 yards on just eight carries whileJordan Rusch (sophomore, Johnston) gained 60 yards on 12 carries.
McMartin liked how Ketchum and the younger players performed coming off the bench in the second half.
“The first drive we had some penalties and things that didn’t help (Ketchum) get going,” he said. “But one of the things we wanted to do today was to play well enough that we could get him some quality reps and get him going with a whole cast of different guys. I thought there were a lot of things he did very well.”
The Dutch limited Luther (0-9 overall, 0-7 conference) to 189 yards offense. Norse quarterback Alex Griffeth completed 12 of 28 passes for 74 yards with one touchdown and was intercepted three times. Dutch safety Cameron Bannister (junior, State Center, West Marshall HS), free safety Brody Klein (sophomore, Rainier, Wash.) and cornerback Stevie Maddox, Jr. (junior, Mesa, Ariz., Tempe HS) each recorded picks. It was a career-first for Maddox.
“We won the turnover battle and that’s something we always want to do,” McMartin said. “Our starting defense didn’t give up anything and even when we started subbing, our defense was really effective.”
Central plays its regular-season home finale next Saturday, taking on Dubuque at Ron and Joyce Schipper Stadium at 1 p.m. The Spartans handed Central its last regular-season defeat, a 28-7 setback at Pella Oct. 12, 2019. Dubuque carries a 4-2 conference record and 5-3 overall mark after getting tripped by Coe 34-27 at Dubuque Saturday.