Jason Hopp

Jason Hopp rushed for 115 yards Saturday

PELLA — Bethel University (Minn.) threw some of the season’s biggest blows at the Central College football team Saturday but quarterback Blaine Hawkins (5th-year, Ankeny) answered with seven touchdown passes and yet another record day in a 61-35 first-round NCAA Division III playoff victory.

Central (11-0), ranked No. 10 by the AFCA and No. 8 by D3football.com, advances to the second round next Saturday at noon at home, taking on No. 9/6-ranked  Wheaton College (Ill.), which crushed Aurora University (Ill), rated No. 23 by D3football.com, 63-31 Saturday at Wheaton, Illinois. Central’s 2019 season was ended in the second round of the playoffs at Wheaton, 49-13.

Hawkins shattered the NCAA Division III record for touchdowns responsible for (points scored and passed for) with 172, topping the mark of 168 set by Kevin Burke of Mount Union (Ohio) from 1996-99.

“That’s amazing,” coach Jeff McMartin said.

Hawkins completed 27 of 41 passes for 331 yards but was picked off twice, doubling his season interceptions total. He now has 57 touchdown passes, just four shy of the Division III record of 61 set in 13 games by Brett Elliott of Linfield (Ore.) in 2004. He also rushed 10 times for 52 yards.

The seven touchdown passes also tie a school mark he set in just one half of play in an 84-16 victory at Simpson College Sept. 25.

Central, which leads Division III in total offense at 609.3 yards, was limited to its second-lowest output of the season at 501. However, that doesn’t include what coaches refer to as hidden yardage, where the Dutch racked up 171 yards on five kick returns and 32 yards on a pair of punt returns. Cameron Bannister (junior, State Center, West Marshall HS) had a 44-yard kick return and Ryan Neu (sophomore, West Des Moines, Valley HS) had a 53-yarder while Brayden Egli (senior, Saint Charles, I-35 HS) had a 29-yard punt return.

That let the Dutch operate with a short field much of the day, starting with an average field position of the Bethel 31-yard line in the first quarter and the Central 45-yard line for the game. Bethel’s averaged drive start was at its own 27.

“The kick returns were outstanding,” McMartin said. “We couldn’t have asked for a better scenario there.”

Wide receiver Tanner Schminke (5th-year, Boone) broke the school season record for TD catches with two more, giving him 17. He had 12 catches for 194 yards while Erik Knaack (5th-year, Reinbeck, Gladbrook-Reinbeck HS) had five catches for 55 yards and a score. Jeff Herbers (junior, Urbandale, Des Moines Christian HS) had four catches for 47 yards and two touchdowns while tight end Grant Nelson (freshman, Pella) had four catches for 25 yards and a TD.

Central also had another big day from running back Jason Hopp (senior, Earlham) who rushed 25 times for 115 yards and also caught two passes for 10 yards and a score.

Bethel (8-3) brought a powerful offense of its own. The Royals put up 485 yards and 35 points, the most allowed by Central in either category. Quarterback Jaran Roste completed 33 of 52 passes for 353 yards. He also ran eight times for 65 yards, including TD runs of 1 and 36 yards.

“Bethel is going to score points,” McMartin said. “They’re a great team.”

But linebacker Josh Van Gysel (sophomore, Anthem, Ariz., Boulder Creek HS) picked off two passes, including a leaping first-quarter grab that he returned 24 yards to the Bethel 7-yard line, setting up Central’s second score for a quick 14-0 lead. He finished with a team-high 14 tackles, including one for loss with eight solos.

“Josh is playing great football right now,” McMartin said. “And I think that each week he continues to get better. I thought he played really well last spring in the shortened season as a freshman and he has just continued to improve.”

Central also had eight pass breakups, including two by linebacker Nathan Rahn (junior, Chadwick, Ill., Milledgeville HS).

Free safety Brody Klein (sophomore, Rainier, Wash.) and Egli each had 10 tackles, cornerback Benjamin Crist (junior, Elizabeth, Ill., River Ridge HS) had nine tackles and Bannister had eight.

Central took a 24-7 lead with 11:36 left in the second quarter on a 21-yard field goal by  Logan Sunvold (sophomore, Monroe, Southeast Polk HS), who later booted a 37-yarder. But Bethel struck twice in the period, including a lightning-quick seven-play, 79-yard drive that took just one minute and pulled the Royals within 27-21 with 26 seconds left in the half. Bethel not only seized the momentum but, after controlling the ball for 19:40 of the opening 30 minutes, threatened to wear down the Dutch defense.

The mood grew even tenser in the Central stands when a rare Hawkins interception on the opening drive of the third quarter put Bethel in position to take its first lead. But this time it was the Central defense with the answer, forcing a punt on a three-and-out. Then the Dutch offense reasserted command with spirit-crushing drives of 83 yards in 10 plays and 75 yards in 16 plays for back-to-back touchdowns and a sudden 41-21 lead. Bethel never got closer than two scores the rest of the way.

McMartin liked the way the Dutch offense and defense responded to the situation.

“If we made a mistake on offense, the defense got a stop,” he said. “Or turn things around, if we gave up a score, we were able to answer those scores.”

For Central’s final touchdown, McMartin and offensive coordinator Ryan Maiuri unveiled yet one more wrinkle in one of the nation’s top offenses. Defensive lineman Blade Durbala (5th-year, Blairstown, Benton HS), who was named the American Rivers defensive player of the year Friday, took a Hawkins handoff and hammered his way into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown. Central deployed Durbala on a similar play earlier in the half for a first down on 4th-and-1.

“We’ve kind of been practicing it for a while,” McMartin revealed. “Linemen, whether they’re on offense or defense, it’s something they always dream about. He’s been on a lot of our special teams and through the course of that, he’s always said, ‘Hey, if you ever want to give me a shot, I’ll get you whatever you need me to get.’ Coach Maiuri saw an opportunity and, the way we’re built as a football team it’s kind of nice to have someone where if it’s inches, he can get inches or if it’s a yard, he can get a yard.

“You could see how excited the whole team was for Blade. They know what he means to the team and how hard he’s worked.”

While Wheaton’s 2019 win over Central was decisive and the road ahead is rough, McMartin and the Dutch are savoring a season that was just extended by another seven days.

“We’re excited for this opportunity,” McMartin said. “We get another week together, that’s the greatest thing. That’s the greatest thing ever. We’re so happy we get to keep playing.”

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