St. John’s/Augsburg: Behind the numbers

A long season at St. John’s got even longer Saturday.

The Johnnies’ 48-17 loss to the Auggies at a cold and blustery Edor Nelson Field extended their losing streak to four games – something that hasn’t happened in a single season at St. John’s since 1930.

The loss leaves the Johnnies 0-4 in MIAC play this season – their worst start in the conference since 1929. And it marked the first time Augsburg has beaten St. John’s in back-to-back seasons since a three-year winning streak from 1927-29.

All historical numbers no one on the current roster – from the players to the coaching staff – wanted any part of.

“We’ve certainly had happier times here,” said Johnnies coach John Gagliardi, who hasn’t before faced a stretch quite this tough in his now 60 seasons as the head coach in Collegeville. “This is tough. It’s hard on all of us.”

And now, people will no doubt be asking again what’s gone wrong with the Johnnies. Certainly, this is a team that this season has been unable to compete with the better teams in what is a much-improved MIAC.

That was clear today when St. John’s (and this still feels a bit shocking to type) just didn’t have the speed to stick with a talented Auggies’ offense that piled up 587 yards. The defense – which made some switches to personel and schemes in an effort to contain Augsburg – couldn’t find an answer for shifty Auggies freshman quarterback Ayrton Scott.

The Minneapolis Southwest graduate – who left the team at North Dakota School of Science prior to the start of the season last year and remains a freshman in terms of eligibility – rushed for 143 yards and threw for 259 yards and four touchdowns.

He has now rushed for over 100 yards in all five of his team’s games and thrown for 200 yards or more in three. He entered play Saturday ranked No. 4 in all of Division III when it comes to total offense.

“He’s a great athlete and any time you have a quarterback who can run the way he can, it puts pressure on a defense,” cornerback Bobby Fischer said. “It’s tough to strategize for that. But we came in with what we thought was a good game plan. We just didn’t execute it. We knew what they were going to throw at us. We just didn’t stop it.”

And even when the defense did come up with a big play – such as freshman cornerback Trevor Warner’s interception return to the Augsburg 14-yard line – late in the first half, the offense was unable to take advantage.

St. John’s scored a touchdown at the 4:14 mark of the first quarter, then mustered only a 45-yard Jimmie Mattson field goal early in the second before Wade Powers scored on a 9-yard touchdown pass from Nick Martin with 4:08 left to play.

The Johnnies finished with 238 yards of total offense, but had just three yards on seven plays in the third quarter.

“We just don’t have consistency,” said running back Steve Johnson, who did become just the ninth player in school history to rush for 2,000 yards or more – perhaps the day’s only bright spot. “We have playmakers and we do some good things. But we don’t finish drives off.”

The Johnnies have now been outscored 160-94 in losses to St. Thomas, Concordia, St. Olaf and Augsburg the past four weeks. Which lends credence to the statement above about not being able to compete with the top teams in the conference.

And yet …

St. John’s has led in three of those games and been tied in the other. Against St. Thomas, the Johnnies led 14-7 in the first half; against Concordia, the score was tied 7-7 in the first quarter; against St. Olaf, St. John’s led much of the way; and today, the Johnnies did build leads of 7-0 and 10-7 in the first half.

But in each of those games, once the opponent managed a couple of big plays and shifted the momentum, it seemed to erode any confidence the Johnnies brought into the game. That happens, of course, when teams are struggling, and not at the same level as the opposition. A couple bad breaks can become an avalanche in a hurry.

“It just seems like when one brick falls, they all fall,” Martin said. “Things cave in.”

There have been rumblings in some corners of the St. John’s fan base – on the live chats I do Mondays, on Dave DeLand’s live chats Thursdays and on Division III message boards – that it’s time for Gagliardi to finally retire, or for the school to ask him to do so.

I have absolutely no indication the latter scenario would ever transpire, and I’d be shocked if it did. Both because it would be the wrong way to treat someone who has achieved as much as Gagliardi has in Collegeville, and because I believe the bitter taste it would leave in the mouths of many who have been connected to the program over the years would be far greater than the satisfaction in would bring to what I still think is a vocal minority.

My own view on the matter, for what it’s worth, is that Gagliardi has earned the right to stay on the job as long as he wants – through four national titles, through 486 career victories and through well over a half-century of doing things the right way in a profession where that isn’t always the case.

How long he himself – at 85 going on 86 – will want to stick around if things continue trending the way they have been – who knows? He’s a competitive guy, and he’s always taken losing hard. This latest losing streak is as tough – maybe tougher – on him than it is on anyone.

But I remain convinced the decision on when he goes is one he will reach on his own timeline, not anyone else’s.

In the meantime, what his team needs most right now is a victory to help rebuild a tattered confidence level. Johnson said as much after Saturday’s loss.

“We need a spark,” Johnson said. “That’s what it comes down to. We just need something to get the fire lit and get us believing in ourselves again.”

Next week seems to present a good opportunity for that. St. John’s plays host to Carleton at Clemens Stadium and the Knights – desite a 3-2 record – remain a team many expected to finish near the bottom of the conference standings.

But Carleton is coming off a 21-20 nonconference win over Macalester (securing possession of the Book of Knowledge for a 10th straight year) and – with justification – will view next week as a golden opportunity to record the school’s first-ever win over St. John’s.

As Gagliardi himself is well aware, there are no gimme games on this version of the Johnnies’ schedule.

“Carleton’s looked pretty good,” Gagliardi said. “And we’re capable of struggling with anybody right now. We can’t count on getting a win any week.”

OK – that was a long-winded ramble – so let’s leave things there for tonight and close the book on the Augsburg game with a look at what happened around the rest of the MIAC today.

* In a matchup of unbeatens, Bethel scored on the final play of the game and successfully went for the two-point conversion to slip past Concordia 15-14 on Homecoming in Arden Hills:

* That sets up a big showdown between Bethel and St. Thomas next week in St. Paul. The Tommies remained unbeaten themselves with a 28-14 victory at home against Gustavus:

* St. Olaf rolled to a 48-14 road win at Hamline:

* And, as mentioned before, Carleton edged Macalester at home in nonconference play:


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