Perhaps lost in the excitement over last week’s upset of St. Thomas was the fact that the St. John’s football team under new head coach Gary Fasching is still very much a work in progress.
Though the Johnnies have demonstrated much improvement from last season’s 5-5 finish, the first four games have also shown this a team that still has some things to shore up.
And some of those areas stood out in the Johnnies’ 24-14 loss to Concordia before a homecoming crowd of 10,077 on a rainy-gives-way-to-sunny Saturday afternoon at Clemens Stadium.
“We’re still developing in a lot of ways,” Fasching said after suffering his first loss since taking over the job. “There are still a lot of things we need to improve on.”
The St. John’s defense has looked much better this fall than last and played by far its best game of the season in the win over the Tommies. But the Johnnies have surrendered a lot of yards in each of the first four games.
In their first three wins, turnovers and big stops in the red zone proved key to allowing a total of just 46 points – 14 each in wins over Wisconsin-River Falls and Wisconsin-Eau Claire and 18 against St. Thomas.
Saturday, the Johnnies again came up with three turnovers. But they surrendered 427 yards of total offense – 124 of it coming on the Cobbers’ first two possessions alone. Concordia scored touchdowns on both those drives, meaning St. John’s trailed by two touchdowns with 10:28 still remaining in the first quarter.
“We dug ourselves a deep hole and it made it pretty tough to get out of,” said safety Darryl Williams, who recorded an interception Saturday and is now tied for the team lead with two this season. “You can’t do that against a good team.”
The St. John’s offense moved the ball well at times, finishing with 328 yards total. But the Johnnies drove inside the Concordia 36 five times and came away with no points, including three times when trying to get back into the game in the second half.
“Getting down early didn’t hurt us that much,” said quarterback Connor Bruns, who finished 23 of 48 passing for 242 yards and a touchdown with the two interceptions. “We still were able to move the ball pretty well after that. But we struggled in the red zone too many times. We had too many plays where we just didn’t execute.”
So now St. John’s must regroup and get ready for a matchup with 1-3 St. Olaf on the road in Northfield next week, knowing that each game from here on out is essentially a must-win if the Johnnies hope to return to the Division III playoffs for the first time since 2009.
“Now we really find out how good we are,” said Fasching, whose team entered play ranked No. 21 in the nation in Division III (its first national ranking since 2010).
“Every week from now on is going to be like the final game of the season if we want to win the conference or make the playoffs. We’re going to have to win every game the rest of the way. That’s the challenge in front of our guys.”
It starts with the Oles next week. But before we shift our attention south toward Northfield, let’s take one last look back at Saturday’s loss by delving a bit deeper behind the numbers.
That’s how many points the Johnnies allowed in each of their first two games. But they gave up that many in less than the first five minutes Saturday.
Led by junior quarterback Griffin Neal – whose play is much improved from his first season as the starter a year ago – Concordia marched 61 yards in just three plays to score on a 35-yard touchdown pass to sophomore Jon Baune on its first possession.
Then, after St. John’s went a quick three-and-out, the Cobbers got the ball back at their own 37. On the fifth play of the drive, Neal connected with Alexandria graduate Mark Whiting on a 38-yard pass that set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Annandale graduate Cooper Gauldin a play later.
And just like that, the Johnnies trailed 14-0.
“They didn’t do that much that was different from what we prepared for,” Williams said. “We just didn’t make the plays that we usually do. And when that happens, a good offense is going to take advantage of it.”
Neal finished 15 of 23 passing for 186 yards and two touchdowns – the second being a fantastic catch on a 26-yard touchdown reception by New London-Spicer graduate Brandon Zylstra (a transfer from Division II Augustana) just before halftime that made the score 21-7.
He also rushed for a game-high 83 of the 241 yards his team rolled up on the ground.
“The difference was they got in some good shots on us and we needed to play a much better football game,” said St. John’s defensive tackle Paul Plombon, who had five tackles and one of his team’s two sacks. “We have to come up and make tackles better than we did today.”
The Cobbers scored just three points in the second half – those coming on a 24-yard field goal by Ben Wagner in the third quarter – but they were able to hold on to beat the Johnnies for the second straight season – marking the first time Concordia has beaten St. John’s two years in a row since 1980 and ’81.
“I’m proud of our football team,” said Cobbers coach Terry Horan, whose team improved to 4-0 and now has a week off before playing host to Bethel – in a rematch of a game Concordia lost in heartbreaking fashion a year ago – on Oct. 12 in Moorhead.
“We had a great week of practice. Our coaches did a great job with the game plan and our kids did a great job of executing it.”
That was how many scoring drives the Johnnies had on an up-and-down afternoon for the offense.
St. John’s cut the gap to 14-7 when Bruns scored on a 3-yard touchdown run with 7:19 to play in the first half. Then a 17-yard touchdown pass from Bruns to the returning Rob Voshell cut the gap to just 10 points with 2:22 to play.
But the Johnnies could not recover the ensuing onside kick.
In between, there were plenty of missed opportunities. St. John’s turned the ball over on downs on its second drive of the game after reaching the Concordia 24. But under pressure from Cobbers defensive end Nate Adams (a Litchfield graduate who transferred from Division II Bemidji State), Bruns’ pass fell incomplete.
The Johnnies again turned the ball over on downs after reaching the Cobbers’ 35 with just 17 seconds to go before halftime when Bruns was stopped for a 1-yard loss, then threw three incompletions.
“It was frustrating,” said Voshell, who finished with five catches for 64 yards in his first action of the season after fracturing his left ulna while playing amateur baseball in the state tournament over Labor Day weekend.
“We know we have some things we need to work on. We have to come out better next week and learn from the mistakes we made today.”
The second half brought interceptions with the ball at the Concordia 19 and 22 and a missed 26-yard field goal attempt by freshman Alexi Johnson with the ball on the Concordia 9.
“We know how we’re capable of playing and we didn’t play up to those expectations today,” said Bruns, whose team has now lost its homecoming game for the fourth straight season – the first time the Johnnies have done that since 1953-56 (that 1956 loss also came against Concordia).
“But now we have to move on. We can’t dwell on this game because we still have a long season in front of us.”
And consistency offensively will be a big key if the rest of that season is to be successful. The Johnnies did move the ball well on a number of drives. But on others, they just couldn’t get going.
One of those times came after Concordia held the ball for 6:14 on the drive that led to Wagner’s third-quarter field goal. St. John’s then went 3-and-out, taking just 54 seconds off the clock before forcing its tired defense back on to the field again.
“We can’t do that as an offense,” said wide receiver Josh Bungum, who had 10 catches for a game-high 82 yards. “Our defense has been playing well all year. But we have to support them more than that. We need to score more points and we need to keep them off the field longer than we did at times today.”
Bruns started his third straight game Saturday. Nick Martin, who began the year as the starter but has been sidelined by a bruised right labrum, was able to dress against the Cobbers.
But he said he was really just the “super-emergency” quarterback and is still limited by the injury. Fasching said Bruns will remain the team’s starter for now, even when Martin is ready to return.
“Connor is our starting quarterback,” Fasching said. “He’s played well for us. Did he have the best game today? Maybe not. There were a lot of areas where we could have played better. But Concordia had a lot to do with that. They’re a pretty good team.”
That was the number of key Johnnies’ players who left Saturday’s game with injuries.
All-MIAC senior center Kevin Battis injured his right knee early in the third quarter and did not return. Freshman Tony Yost took his place. Battis said afterward that the initial sideline diagnosis was an injury to his medial collateral ligament. But he will undergo an MRI on Monday.
“I thought Tony came in and played pretty well,” Fasching said. “You always worry about how the snap is going to go when a new center comes into the game. But it was fine.”
Senior cornerback Dylan Graves left the game with a possible concussion in the second half and did not return. Sophomore defensive end Blake Bellefeuille (right knee) and senior offensive tackle Jack Hedlund (shoulder) also left the game in the second half and finished the game on the sidelines.
Senior wide receiver Blake Belland sat out the game after separating a shoulder against St. Thomas last week. And sophomore running back Peter Vakulskus, who has been sidelined all season with a knee injury but was able to do some things in practice this week, also did not dress.
Yet Voshell returned as did fellow Sartell graduate Sean Tillman, a defensive lineman who had not played all season after suffering a high-ankle sprain while playing amateur baseball this summer.
He finished the day with one solo tackle.
“I felt pretty good,” Tillman said. “I played most of the fourth quarter. It was tough to come in when we were down like that. But I felt good.”
Around the MIAC
Elsewhere in the conference Saturday, St. Olaf jumped out to an early lead, but fell 45-19 on the road against Gustavus in St. Peter: http://www.stolaf.edu/athletics/news//index.cfm?fuseaction=NewsDetails&id=4203
* Bethel – ranked No. 5 in the nation in Division III – rushed for 348 yards as a team en route to beating Carleton 58-14 in its MIAC opener in Northfield: http://athletics.bethel.edu/news/2013/9/28/FB_0928130450.aspx
* Augsburg, which along with Concordia received votes in this week’s D3football.com Division III Top 25 poll, improved to 3-0 with a 55-20 win over Hamline. Quarterback Ayrton Scott rushed for 161 yards while throwing for 214 yards and four touchdowns: http://athletics.augsburg.edu/news/2013/9/28/fb092813.aspx
* St. Thomas had this week off after falling to the Johnnies last Saturday.