PELLA — The championship that a pandemic denied in 2020 and that 15 of last year’s Central College seniors returned to claim was decisively secured with a 56-7 football triumph over the University of Dubuque Saturday before an approving Legacy Day crowd.
The victory assures the No. 10-rated Dutch (9-0 overall, 7-0 conference) of an outright American Rivers Conference crown, a record 32nd league title. With one regular-season game still remaining, it also gives Central its 22nd NCAA Division III Championships playoff berth.
It’s the second consecutive title for the Dutch, who shared the 2019 championship, then were limited to a two-game spring schedule by the pandemic last year. That was an unsatisfying career capstone for 15 seniors who opted to take advantage of the additional year of eligibility granted by the NCAA.
“It was an exciting day,” said coach Jeff McMartin, who also welcomed more than 100 alumni players back to campus for Legacy Day. “We’re super proud of that 2019 team for what they battled through and how hard they had to work to get that championship. Then these seniors got together and said, that was awesome but now let’s go win this next one outright and they’ve been able to accomplish that.”
The Dutch did it the way they have much of the year, behind another record performance by one of those fifth-year seniors, quarterback Blaine Hawkins (Ankeny), as he shattered just about the only Central record that didn’t already carry his name with 34 completions. That topped the mark of 30 set by Riley Gray against Nebraska Wesleyan in 2016. With the Dubuque defense geared to deny the deep shots the Dutch thrive on, Hawkins patiently took what was available, connecting on 34 of 44 passes for 283 yards and another six touchdowns.
That also set a mark as Hawkins eclipsed the conference touchdown passes record of 35 set in 2011 by Wyatt Hanus of Dubuque. Hawkins now has 39 TD passes in seven league games.
It’s also the sixth consecutive game that Hawkins has thrown for six or more touchdowns and raised his season total to 45, which leads all divisions of the NCAA. It also breaks his own school season record of 44 set in 2019.
But with Dubuque (5-4 overall, 4-3 conference) guarding the deep passing routes, the Dutch found open real estate on the ground. Running back Jason Hopp (senior, Earlham) racked up 140 yards rushing with one TD and also caught nine passes for 79 yards.
That was part of the plan, according to McMartin.
“(Assistant coach Ryan) Maiuri kind of threw some things out there during the week that were going to feature Jason and there were some opportunities for him,” McMartin said. “I teased Jason on Thursday, I said, ‘Man, you’re going to catch a lot of passes this weekend and have a big day.’ I’m not that great at predicting that kind of stuff but just in watching film and watching him practice, we felt like we had a great opportunity.
“The other thing is give our offensive line a lot of credit. They did an awesome job today.”
Hawkins, meanwhile, scampered to a season-high 101 yards rushing, including a 21-yard first-quarter touchdown scramble, giving Central a 14-0 lead. A 28-point second quarter, typically the team’s most productive period, settled the issue, extending the margin to 42-7 at halftime.
“This is a big-play team,” said McMartin, who has guided the Dutch to six league titles in his 18 seasons. “We have a lot of weapons and (Dubuque) really tried to prevent stuff from happening too fast. So I thought our offense was very patient and did a great job of executing.”
Erik Knaack (5th-year, Reinbeck, Gladbrook-Reinbeck HS) had 10 receptions for 73 yards and two scores while Tanner Schminke (5th-year, Boone) matched Hopp with nine catches for 79 yards but added two touchdowns. Ten Central players caught passes.
Central held a lopsided 602-yard to 211-yard advantage in total offense as the Dutch were just under their season average of 620.3 yards. Cornerback Brayden Egli (senior, Saint Charles, I-35 HS) had a team-high seven tackles while strong safety Cameron Bannister (junior, State Center, West Marshall HS) had six stops and grabbed two interceptions. The Dutch recorded three sacks.
“I thought defensively we played really, really well,” McMartin said. “We had that one series where we kind of got outside of ourselves a little bit and had some penalties that hurt us. But overall, they should be proud of how they played today because that’s not an easy offense to shut down.”
Central was flagged four times on Dubuque’s lone scoring drive in the second quarter.
It was also a record day for kicker Logan Sunvold (sophomore, Monroe, Southeast Polk HS), who was perfect on eight extra-point tries, giving him 63 on the year. That tops the standard set by all-American Jon Alberts, who as perfect on 59 attempts in 2019.
Championships and records aside, as always McMartin kept his focus on the game and liked what he saw.
“I thought we improved from last week and that’s really our goal,” he said. “We are chasing improvement. We’re chasing being a better football team in the current game than we were last week. So we’re excited about it.”
Central next looks to post the program’s first unbeaten full regular season since 2009. The Dutch head to Storm Lake for the regular-season finale next Saturday at Buena Vista University at 1 p.m. The Beavers were edged Saturday at Cedar Rapids by Coe College, 31-28, dropped to 5-4 overall and 4-3 in league play.