Larry Happel, Sports Information Director
PELLA — It was epic.
The 42-point Central College football first-half explosion. The furious 35-point Wartburg College second-half comeback that left the Dutch dazed. The record point totals. And, most of all, the Hunter Robinson (senior, Lisbon) stretch for a dramatic game-winning 2-point conversion in Central’s 57-56 overtime upset of the No. 7-ranked Knights that will remain firmly etched in the memory banks of fans for years.
It was the most points by two teams ever in a Central game. More significantly, it’s Central’s first win over previously unbeaten Wartburg since 2016 and leaves the teams tied atop the American Rivers standings at 6-1 (both 8-1 overall) heading into the final week of the regular season. Central closes at Coe College in Cedar Rapids next Saturday with Wartburg playing host to Loras College. The league title and an NCAA Division III playoff berth ride on the outcome.
The Dutch had seemingly put the game in blowout mode with a 49-14 lead with 9:12 left in the third quarter when the momentum winds suddenly shifted. With every Central mistake, points and even first downs became more elusive. The Dutch seemingly limped into overtime tied 49-49 and when Wartburg needed just two plays on its overtime possession to make it 56-49, fans sense the upset dreams fading away.
Coach Jeff McMartin and his squad remained confident.
“We knew that if we just straightened ourselves out, don’t get penalties and execute what we’re capable of doing, we’d run enough plays that we felt like we’d worn them down enough we’d be able to score,” McMartin said. “We got the ball last and knew what we were going to do.”
They did. The Dutch pounded away with five straight running plays and Robinson raced in from the 2-yard line on a jet sweep to make it 56-55.
McMartin and his staff had discussed late-game scenarios earlier in the week and with a kicker as dependable as the sunrise in preseason all-American Jon Alberts (senior, Huntley, Ill.), thought booting the extra point was the most prudent option. Until it wasn’t.
“Even when overtime started I was still planning on kicking it but then how things shook out when they had the ball, I felt like our best shot was to do it right then and there and win the game,” McMartin said. “That decision was made when we got the ball.”
Play to win has long been a McMartin mantra and that’s what Central did, signaling in a recently installed 2-point play.
It was almost scratched. Central hoped to pull a surprise at the line of scrimmage, suddenly sending offensive linemen split out wide on both sides of the field. But the resulting look the Dutch expected from the Wartburg defense didn’t materialize and McMartin frantically tried to call time-out. He was too late.
Quarterback Blaine Hawkins (junior, Ankeny) took the shotgun snap and fired a low pass to the sideline where Robinson was positioned behind two of the shifted linemen. He made the catch and muscled his way toward the goal line. His body never reached the end zone but he stretched the ball across as he fell, triggering a wild celebration at Ron and Joyce Schipper Stadium.
Almost lost in the haze of the flurry of points and turning points in the game was yet another Hawkins school record as he eclipsed the career passing yardage mark of 6,181 set by Tim Connell (2004-07). He now has 6,199.
Hawkins tied his own school mark with six touchdown passes and scored a seventh on a 1-yard keeper. He completed 22 of 40 passes for 326 yards but was picked off three times. Hawkins was also Central’s leading rusher with 127 yards on 20 carries.
It was another big day for wide receiver Erik Knaack (junior, Reinbeck, Gladbrook-Reinbeck HS) with nine catches for a career-high 222 yards and two scores. Running back Jason Hopp (sophomore, Earlham)had six catches for 48 yards and a score while rushing for 78 yards on 18 carries. Do-it-all freshman Cameron Bannister (State Center, West Marshall HS) had five catches for 79 yards and a TD and ran for 36 yards on seven carries.
Central finished with 630 yards, topping the 600-yard mark for the second straight week. It was also a record eighth time the Dutch scored more than 40 points in nine games. Central passed for 381 yards overall and ran for 249. Wartburg nearly matched those numbers with 238 yards rushing, 356 yards passing and 594 overall.
Free safety Brayden Egli (sophomore, Saint Charles, Interstate 35 HS) again topped the Central tackle chart with 12, including seven solos, and had an interception. Linebacker Tate O’Tool (senior, Fort Dodge, St. Edmond HS) had nine stops and cornerback Tre Wilridge III (junior, Crowley, La., Tombstone, Ariz. HS)had a career-high eight tackles and forced a fumble.
Perhaps the only thing more surprising than Wartburg’s second-half turnaround was Central’s first-half eruption against the league’s No. 1-ranked defense. Central came out firing as a pass from wide receiver Tanner Schminke (junior, Boone) to Knaack on the first play from scrimmage netted 55 yards. Hawkins matched his own school mark with five first-half touchdown passes as the Dutch bolted to a 42-14 lead. Central rolled up 441 first-half yards.
“We wanted to be aggressive,” McMartin said. “We felt like that gave us our best chance and it did.”
The Dutch kept their foot on the gas after the break, getting a fourth-down stop on Wartburg’s first third-quarter possession, then raced 82 yards for yet another Hawkins TD toss for a lopsided 49-14 lead before the Dutch began to misfire.
“We wanted to be aggressive in the second half, too, and we got off to a good start and then just made mistakes,” McMartin said. “The things you can’t do, we did, and that got us into trouble. We stayed aggressive, but we threw interceptions, we got a punt blocked for a touchdown, we couldn’t get defensive stops. It was just bad execution. That’s my responsibility and I’m disappointed that happened.
“Give Wartburg credit, they battled back, they didn’t quit, they kept making plays. They’re a great football team. We were fortunate to win it.”
But McMartin said Central’s overtime persistence is a testament to his philosophy of focusing solely on the play ahead.
“I hope it shows our players that they need to keep believing,” he said. “It’s a one-play-at-a-time thing and each play is important. Our talk all week was about being focused, doing your job to the best of your ability, doing it with passion, not looking at the scoreboard and not thinking about what had happened. That played out today.”
And it played out in ways few could have anticipated.
“This was a wild game,” McMartin said. “When you walk on the field every week, I accept the fact that just about anything can happen.”
It was a satisfying win but still leaves the Dutch a game short of their goal of at least a share of a conference title. That will require a win next Saturday at Coe and it was the Kohawks who spoiled Central’s title hopes last year with a 27-24 overtime decision at Pella. They were off Saturday and bring a 6-3 overall record and 5-2 mark into next week’s finale.
But that’s next week. This Saturday was a Senior Day to remember for 22 Central seniors and their jubilant, albeit exhausted, fans.
“This will be a game these kids will never forget and I’m happy that they have that memory,” McMartin said.