PELLA — Unforgettable. The moment, the game and this Central College football season.
Already the author of one of the best offensive seasons in NCAA Division III history, quarterback Blaine Hawkins (5th-year, Ankeny), punctuated it Saturday with one of the tradition-rich program’s most memorable finishes. With the last few seconds of his career potentially ticking away, Hawkins cooly took the snap on the game’s final play, then lofted a 3-yard pass to Tanner Schminke (senior, Boone) in the corner of the end zone for a stunning 30-28 Dutch triumph over No. 9-ranked Wheaton College (Ill.) in the second round of the Division III playoffs Saturday.
“That was a little Dutch magic today, for sure,” coach Jeff McMartin said.
That finish sends No. 10 Central (12-0) to a quarterfinal-round contest with the No. 3 University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (12-0) next Saturday at noon at a site to be determined. The Warhawks overwhelmed DePauw University (Ind.) at home Saturday 45-0.
Hawkins completed 41 of 65 passes for 434 yards and four touchdowns despite fierce 25-30 mph winds and an even fiercer Wheaton defense, tying the Division III season record of 61 TD strikes set by Brett Elliott of Linfield (Ore.) in 2004. Recently named a semifinalist for the Gagliardi Trophy as Division III player of the year, Hawkins also set a single-game school mark for most pass attempts with 65.
“This is the guy you want to give the ball to,” McMartin said. “He’s obviously a special player and one of the things that makes him special is the fact that he’s very even-keeled and cool under pressure. He just continues to execute.”
Meanwhile, after losing starting receiver Erik Knaack (5th-year, Reinbeck, Gladbrook-Reinbeck HS) to injury early in the game, Jeff Herbers (junior, Urbandale, Des Moines Christian HS) came up big with a school-record 16 catches for 163 yards and a score, topping Sam Markham’s 2016 record of 15.
The win helps erase the bitter taste left by a 49-13 second-round playoff trouncing Central absorbed at Wheaton two years ago, in a game arguably not as close as that day’s final score. That left the Dutch determined to write a better story in 2021, after a pandemic denied them the chance to do so in 2020.
“That game in 2019, taking that beating, is kind of a reason a lot of us came back,” said Schminke, one of 15 fifth-year players who opted to return for an extra season granted by the NCAA. “We wanted more.”
Yet with one of Division III’s stingiest defenses, Wheaton largely grounded Central’s record-breaking offense much of the day, limiting the Dutch to 10 points in three quarters. And the Thunder seemed to have the game in hand when Adam Terrini caught a 6-yard TD pass for a 21-10 lead with 14:15 left.
But it’s still Hawktober.
Hawkins threw a 30-yard TD strike to Schminke to complete a 75-yard drive with 11:22 left. Central forced a punt into the wind the left the Dutch at the Wheaton 29-yard line. They needed just 1:38 to score again as Hawkins hit Herbers from 8 yards out to take a 24-21 lead with 8:47 left.
Wheaton answered with a methodical 10-play, 75-yard drive as Luke Anthony threw a 13-yard pass to Terrelle Brown, who made a juggling catch on his back in the end zone and it was Wheaton with a 28-24 lead.
Just 2:41 remained.
With Hawkins and Central’s Division III-leading offense, that was just enough time.
“We knew they didn’t even need two minutes with this offense,” marveled Dutch defensive end Hunter Maddy (5th-year, Mystic, Centerville HS). “You see that in practice. They are a great group of guys who have a lot of trust in each other and you know they can get it done.”
Yet Wheaton yielded yardage grudgingly. Twice the Dutch had to convert on fourth down, their season hanging in the balance with each snap. With just 14 seconds remaining, Central faced fourth-and-10 when Hawkins found running back Jason Hopp (senior, Earlham) for 16 yards to the 3-yard line. Hopp was injured on the play—one of four Dutch offensive starters lost to injury in the physical contest—and the clock stopped briefly with 6 seconds left. But rather than spike the ball when the clock restarted, Hawkins found Schminke, setting off a wild Schipper Stadium celebration. Central took a knee rather than attempt the point-after-conversion and ended the game.
“Blaine extends plays,” McMartin said. “He made some great runs in the second half and on that last drive just to get us first downs and keep us going. He found open receivers, he made some key fourth-down plays. You’re not going to find a lot of quarterbacks that are able to do that kind of stuff but that’s what you get with Blaine Hawkins.”
He got plenty of help.
“I thought our offensive line did a really good job against their defensive line,” McMartin said. “That defensive line is special. Player to player, those guys are really, really good. They have no weaknesses up front. And so I give our guys a ton of credit.”
Wheaton’s No. 2-ranked rushing defense more than matched the hype. Central was limited to just 8 yards on the ground after averaging 208.6 yards in the previous 11 games.
Hawkins gained a net of 6 yards, losing 33 on four sacks while gaining 39. Hopp was limited to 4 yards on four carries as Central was forced to go to the air. Hawkins’ 61 attempts are six more than Mark Isaacson’s 2003 record. That gives him 424 for the year, also a record, topping Tim Connell’s 407 in 2007.
McMartin highlighted the Dutch defense, noting that Wheaton was averaging 50.1 points and 500.4 yards a game, including 264.5 yards rushing. Wheaton ws limited to 396 yards overall and 140 on the ground. Central had 442 yards and held a 26-23 advantage in first downs. Wheaton’s Anthony completed 22 of 32 passes for 256 yards and three touchdowns. He was sacked twice. Running back Giovanni Weeks rushed for 105 yards on 18 carries but Wheaton was limited to 140 yards on the ground, after averaging 264.5 for the season.
“You really have to give our kids a lot of credit,” McMartin said. “I thought our defense played great. That’s a high-powered offense, across the board.”
It was a huge day for sophomore linebacker Josh Van Gysel (Anthem, Ariz., Boulder Creek HS), who had a season-high 16 tackles including eight solo stops, with a forced fumble and a pass breakup. Maddy had nine stops and a tackle for loss.
The superlatives flowed for the offense as well.
“Offensively, I thought our guys did an awesome job and continue to execute,” he said. “We’re built for this. (Offensive coordinator Ryan) Maiuri’s game plan I thought worked to perfection because we really wanted to just stay in the game and keep working. It’s like a boxing match, you just keep giving body blows and eventually they’ll start to pay off.”
Herbers’ record performance was well-timed.
“Jeff has has had a great year from the word go,” McMartin said. “Jeff is just growing and getting better each week. He’s somebody that Blaine (Hawkins) has a lot of trust in and runs really good routes. He’s making a lot of really tough catches.”
Special teams also played a big role on the windswept field.
“Our kicking game was really, really good,” McMartin said. “We punted well when we had to and flipped the field a number of times. We made a key field goal into the wind. I give a lot of credit to our coaching staff.”
Central’s depth was tested as well.
“I’ve said all along this year that we have good depth,” McMartin said. “You never want to lose those guys, they’re special players. But I thought everybody else filled in, fought really hard and just kept doing their job.”
Central had to earn its way to the quarterfinals, reaching that stage for the first time since 2007 by getting past two ranked teams in No. 17 Bethel and No. 9 Wheaton.
“We have taken the hard road,” McMartin said. “We played two really great football teams in Bethel and Wheaton. But we battled and played hard.”
Wisconsin-Whitewater, a perennial Division III powerhouse looms. But McMartin is simply savoring a week of practice and more time with his players.
“It’s going to be a fun week,” he said. “We get to keep playing football.”