By Brandon Spratt
Last Saturday’s game at Clemens Stadium featured two top defenses, but only one team could win to clinch its spot in the NCAA Division III playoffs.
No. 6 St. John’s was able to do just that with a 10-3 win over No. 18 Concordia-Moorhead.
The game against the Cobbers was 0-0 heading into halftime.
“We knew it was going to be a tight game,” SJU head coach Gary Fasching said via email. “The team felt confident that we could score in the second half.”
The Johnnies struck first on a 24-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Jackson Erdmann to senior wide receiver Dan Harrington on fourth down early in the second half.
“At that part of the field with our defense playing well, I thought it was a good gamble,” Fasching said.
On the previous third down Erdmann had an open receiver, but misfired the pass to set up fourth down. The Johnnies ran the same play on fourth down, except this time Harrington juked his defender and created separation for the touchdown.
“Same play, but just a little change on one route,” Erdmann said.
It turned out to be the only touchdown of the game as the SJU defense held a Concordia offense averaging over 300 rushing yards per game to 112.
“Our defense was playing outstanding, and felt they could shut down the Concordia offense,” Fasching said. “They carried out their assignments perfectly.”
Cobbers senior running back Chad Johnson, who entered the game leading the MIAC with 1,251 yards and 17 TDs on the season, had seven carries for 29 yards.
“We had three guys on the dive most plays and that’s where Johnson ran,” SJU junior defensive lineman Nathan Brinker said. “Concordia’s offensive line is rather large and we just used our speed to capitalize.”
In the fourth quarter, SJU junior punter Naufahu Anitoni pinned the Cobbers
inside the 6-yard-line on three separate occasions.
“Oh [it was] huge. It’s very tough to go 95 yards on our defense,” Erdmann said.
No. 6 St. John’s secured its fourth consecutive playoff appearance with the win over Concordia. SJU will play Saturday in the first round of the DIII playoffs against No. 9 North Central College in Naperville, Ill.
The Cardinals are the champions of the College Conference of Illinois and
Wisconsin (CCIW) with a 7-1 conference record. They finished 9-1 overall with the only loss coming against its rival Wheaton (Ill.).
“We got the toughest draw in the first round,” Fasching said.
The draw came as a surprise to many, including d3football.com who projected the Johnnies to host Monmouth in the first round.
“I was surprised that we’re going all the way to Illinois,” Brinker said. “I didn’t know we were going to have to drive seven-and-a-half hours to our first game. I thought we were going to have a home game.”
The Johnnies bused the seven-hour trip to Naperville over two days. NCAA rules state teams can only fly if the trip is over 500 miles. The trip to Naperville is 485 miles.
“Coach made the point at practice yesterday that think about them, they got screwed over. They won their conference and they have to play us first round,” Erdmann said. “I 100 percent agree with that and the whole team feels that way too.”
SJU will have its hands full with a North Central rush defense giving up 67.9 yards per game.
“They play great defense, and have an explosive offense. We will have to be at our very best to beat them,” Fasching said.
The Cardinals average 41.2 points per game, good for 14th in DIII. The Johnnies are allowing just 8.3 points per game, second fewest in DIII.
North Central’s offense features sophomore quarterback Broc Rutter, who transferred in before the 2016 season from Division I Indiana State. He has thrown for 57 touchdowns and nearly 6,000 yards in his two seasons with the Cardinals.
“He’s a very good quarterback and he likes to throw the ball,” Brinker said. “It will be a good matchup against our defense. I think we’ll come out on top.”
SJU has finished 10-2 every year since 2014. The previous three seasons the Johnnies won a home playoff game, before losing in the second round on the road. This year SJU opens the playoffs on the road with hopes that the changeup could lead to different results.
“Gotta take that next step as a program and get past that 10-2,” Erdmann said. “We have our eyes set on a national championship because that’s the best we can be.”
FEATURE PHOTO BY ALEXUS JUNGLES • [email protected]
SJU senior wide receiver Dan Harrington celebrates his game-winning touchdown against No. 18 Concordia-Moorhead.