Arden Hills, Minn. – Three turnovers proved to be the difference in a 41-17 loss to fifth-ranked Bethel for the Gustavus football team on Saturday afternoon at Royal Stadium. Those three turnovers led to 21 points for the Royals, including a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown. With the loss, Gustavus drops to 4-3 overall (2-3 MIAC), while Bethel improves to 7-0 overall (5-0 MIAC).
“It was a tough day because we played some good football and obviously didn’t come out with the result we wanted,” stated Head Coach Peter Haugen. “Bethel is a good football team and they showed that today by taking advantage of our mistakes. No question that our three turnovers were the difference in the game.”
It took all of 3:50 for the Royals to take the opening kick off and march 70 yards in eight plays to score a touchdown on their opening drive. Two plays into the drive, Bethel faced a third down with 13 yards needed to convert the first down at its own 27-yard line. Quarterback Erik Peterson dropped back and found Mitch Hallstrom for a 19-yard completion that gave the Royals a first down at their own 46-yard line. Peterson went on to hook up with Hallstrom twice more on the possession, the last of which was a 35-yard touchdown pass down the Bethel sideline. The point-after attempt was missed, but the Royals still were out to the early 6-0 lead.
The Gusties responded with a monster drive that went 13 plays and 60 yards in 6:54 of game clock. Gustavus diced up the Bethel defense, gaining small chunks of yardage play after play, converting three third downs on the drive. Faced with third-and-goal from the Bethel two-yard line, running back Jeffrey Dubose (Sr., St. Paul, Minn.) plunged into the end zone to presumably tie the score, but the touchdown was called back due to an illegal formation penalty on the Gusties, pushing them back to the Bethel seven-yard line.
On the ensuing third down try, quarterback Mitch Hendricks (So., Laporte, Minn.) had Matt Boyce (So., Excelsior, Minn.) open in the back of the end zone, but the two were unable to connect as the ball was slightly behind Boyce, who slipped on the play, and the Gusties were forced to settle for a field goal. Thomas Schleusener (Jr., Rapid City, S.D.) nailed the 24-yarder and cut the deficit to 6-3. However, the drive would be foreshadowing of what was to come for the Gustavus offense throughout the afternoon.
The kick off following the field goal gave the Royals possession at their own 35-yard line. Three plays later, on second-and-seven, an Eric Peterson pass fell into the waiting arms of Gustavus safety Kellan Euerle (Sr., St. Cloud, Minn.). Euerle returned the interception 35 yards to the Bethel 17-yard line and the Gusties were in business with great field position.
The Gustavus offense pounded the ball all the way down to the Bethel three-yard line and it was knocking on the door once again. After Dubose was denied the goal line twice, Hendricks dropped back on third down and fired to the right side, looking for his receiver on a slant in the end zone. But Hendricks never found him. Instead, Bethel defensive back Matt Mehlhorn stepped in front, intercepted the pass, and raced the entire length of the field for a 100-yard touchdown return to put the Royals out front 13-3.
“We had the ball deep in their zone and threw a pick six: that’s tough,” acknowledged Haugen. “But our guys kept fighting. They kept battling, and we kept it close all the way to the end.”
Coach Haugen said it best as the Gustavus offense battled back with yet another huge drive. The possession encompassed 13 plays, 75 yards, and 6:07 of game time. The result was a Gustavus touchdown. Much like their first drive, the Gusties picked apart the Bethel defense. This time it was two big pass plays that highlighted the drive, both with Matt Boyce on the receiving end. Hendricks found Boyce for a 19-yard gain midway through the drive, and later connected for a key 33-yard strike on fourth down with 11 yards to go. Boyce went high to grab the reception and hung on despite pass interference by the Bethel defensive back. The big play set up a one-yard Dubose touchdown run and the Gusties were back in business, trailing by just three points (13-10).
The only other scoring threat of the first half came when the Royals marched down the field deep into Gustavus territory. With a first and goal at the nine-yard line, the Gustie defense dug in its heels with two key pass break ups in the end zone by Euerle and Jake Forcier (Jr., Watkins, Minn.). The deflections came on second and third down, respectively, and kept the Royals off the scoreboard as Bethel kicker Andrew O’Reilly missed a 26-yard field goal.
However, the second half would prove to be a different story. On the second play of the frame, quarterback Mitch Hendricks was intercepted by linebacker Landon Mathis, who returned the pick to the Gustavus 46-yard line. The Royals did not let the short field go to waste, as they marched down the field to score on a five-yard touchdown pass from Erik Peterson to Mitch Hallstrom.
Gustavus responded with another long drive on the ensuing possession, driving 66 yards down to the Bethel five-yard line. But again the Gustie offense stalled and had to settle for a field goal attempt from 22-yards out, which was blocked.
Bethel again took advantage of the Gustavus miscue on its next possession. The Royals pulled a trick play out of the bag when receiver Mitch Hallstrom caught a lateral behind the line of scrimmage and proceeded to throw the ball downfield to a wide-open Jay Hillbrands. Hillbrands did the rest of the work, taking it 66 yards across the goal line to extend the Bethel lead to 27-10.
After an empty drive for Gustavus, the Gustie defense stopped the Royals on fourth down on the first play of the fourth quarter. The offense took over and proceeded to march 71 yards in nine plays to score a touchdown and cut the lead to 27-17. A pair of big plays in the passing game again highlighted the drive, the first of which was a 26-yard completion to Matt Boyce on fourth down and nine yards to go. With the defense bearing down all around him, quarterback Mitch Hendricks threw the ball up to Boyce. The sophomore again climbed the ladder and came down with the reception to keep the drive alive. Two plays later, Hendricks completed a swing pass out to the left side to wide receiver George Buchner (Fr., Excelsior, Minn.). After breaking a tackle, Buchner stretched for the pylon and snuck the ball past the goal line. The score was Buchner’s first of his career and pulled the Gusties within 10 points (27-17) with 11:54 remaining in the game.
The score would not be enough, however, as the Royals marched down the field to score another touchdown on their next possession. An interception on Gustavus’s following drive would lead to another Bethel score to increase the lead to 41-17, which is where it would remain until the final horn.
Although not pleased with the outcome, Head Coach Peter Haugen feels there are positives to take from the loss.
“I think the guys see how close we are. That’s the biggest thing that we are going to take from today. It’s a play here or a play there that is the difference right now. Nobody has moved the ball on their defense like we did today, we just didn’t finish. We got the ball in tight, we just couldn’t finish off drives.”
For the game, the Gusties gained the most yards allowed by the Bethel defense this season, collecting 383 yards of total offense (119 rushing, 264 passing). However, three key turnovers led to 21 points for the Royals. Quarterback Mitch Hendricks completed 23 of 43 attempts for 264 yards and a touchdown along with three interceptions. Running back Jeffrey Dubose paced the ground game with 83 yards rushing on 23 attempts and added a touchdown. He now sits just one rushing touchdown shy of the career touchdowns record and two shy of the record for rushing TDs in a season. Gustavus also got big games from receivers Matt Boyce and George Buchner in the receiving game. Boyce caught nine passes for 121 yards, while Buchner hauled in seven receptions for 72 yards and a touchdown.
The Gustavus defense had a difficult time containing the top offense in the MIAC, as the Royals collected 418 yards of total offense (164 rushing, 254 passing). Bethel also converted on nine of 12 third downs (75%) on the day. Cameron Cropsey (Jr., Eagan, Minn.) led the way for the Gustie defense with seven tackles (4 solo), while Kellan Euerle added six tackles (3 solo) and an interception.
The Gusties will return home next weekend for a match up with No. 23 Saint John’s next Saturday at Hollingsworth Field. Next weekend’s kick off is set for 1:00 p.m.
“We’re right there,” Haugen finished. “We are a good football team because we have guys who believe in each other, believe in their coaches, and we’re going to be just fine.”