It’s been a little like trying to patch a leaky dam for the St. John’s football team this season.
Plug one leak and two more pop up elsewhere. Such was the case Saturday afternoon in a 38-35 Homecoming loss to St. Olaf at Clemens Stadium.
The Johnnies – who focused all week on the running game – seemed to solve the rushing woes that have ailed them the past two weeks. The Oles did enter play ranked last against the run in the MIAC. But St. John’s – which rushed for a total of 50 yards in losses to St. Thomas and Concordia the past two weeks – piled up 237 yards on the ground Saturday.
The offense, under the direction of freshman quarterback Nick Martin, scored 35 points.
But it was the pass defense that faltered this week. Veteran St. Olaf senior Dan Dobson threw for 389 yards and five touchdowns – including a 19-yard touchdown pass to Stephen Asp with 3:43 remaining that put the Oles in front for the first time all day.
And senior kicker Jimmie Mattson had a long day as well, going 0-for-3 on field goal attempts, including a 36-yarder with under six seconds to play that would have sent the game to overtime.
Different week, different problems, same result.
“It’s tough,” said running back Nick Schneider, who rushed for 82 yards and a touchdown. “Offensively, we had a pretty good day. But we made some mistakes that cost us to. It just seems like we can’t get everything to come together at once.”
St. John’s is now facing a three-game losing streak for the second season in a row. And coaches and players are aware that frustration is mounting in the team’s always-passionate fan base.
“A couple more losses and the wolves will really start howling for us,” Gagliardi said. “I know that there’s some howling already.”
It’s frustrating inside the locker room as well, especially for the team’s seniors, who lost on Homecoming for the third year in a row.
“It’s tough,” said senior cornerback Bobby Fischer, who had his team’s lone interception Saturday. “This is never the way you want your senior season to go. What’s really frustrating is that we have a team that’s talented. But we keep making mistakes that hold us back.”
Last year, the Johnnies rallied after their three-game skid and won their final four games in a row. Five games remain on the schedule this season, starting at 3-1 Augsburg next week, a team that beat St. John’s 32-31 on a last-second touchdown pass on Homecoming last season.
“We’re not worried about revenge or anything like that,” senior defensive end Jake King said. “Right now, we just have to find a way to win some games.”
It didn’t happen Saturday. And before turning the page to the Auggies, let’s take one last look back at the loss to the Oles by delving deeper behind the numbers:
That was how many members of his veteran receing corps that Dobson connected with on touchdown passes Saturday. Running back Michael Thai finished with nine catches for 103 yards and one touchdown. Asp finished with seven catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns. And Jake Schmiesing had seven catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns.
“They probably have the best receiving corps in the MIAC, but we missed some assignments and that hurt us,” Fischer said. “We didn’t make the plays that we needed to.”
The Oles rushed for just 72 yards as a team. But they didn’t need much of a ground game with Dobson able to find open receivers much of the afternoon. The game was a bit of revenge for St. Olaf, who fell 27-24 in Collegeville last season – a loss that effectively ended its playoff hopes. In that game, Dobson threw for just 114 yards and no touchdowns.
“We wanted to get their safeties off the shelf and challenge their corners,” Oles coach Jerry Olszewski said. “We did that and it worked. Dan had a heckuva game. In some ways, it was a bit of a redemption game for him after last season.”
That was the St. Olaf yard line the Johnnies were able to reach on their final possession after Asp’s touchdown catch put the Oles up by three. But a false start penalty cost them five yards. And Martin’s pass to Taylor Freetly that could have resulted in a touchdown was a bit high. The senior tight end took a big hit that resulted in what is believed to be a broken collarbone.
“If we could have connected on that last drive, it would have been magnificient,” Gagliardi said. “We have in the past. But today we didn’t. That’s just how it goes sometimes. It’s hard.”
Yet Martin still had a pretty good afternoon starting in place of injured junior Connor Bruns, who is out with a separated shoulder suffered against Concordia last week.
He finished 10 of 20 passing for 161 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 48 yards and two touchdowns, including a 57 yarder in the first quarter to put his team up 7-0. He did throw two interceptions, the second of which was returned 32 yards to the St. John’s 43 by senior cornerback Reggie Woods to set up the Oles’ go-ahead touchdown.
“He played well,” Gagliardi said. “He made a few mistakes, but for the most part, he did an outstanding job. He seemed like a veteran out there.”
Martin also continued to handle the team’s punting duties, averaging 42.5 yards per kick on four attempts.
“I worked hard in practice to get ready,” Martin said. “Once I got that first snap out of the way, the nerves went away and I was ready to go.”
Offensive coordinator Jim Gagliardi said Martin will start next week against the Auggies, though fellow freshman Mitch Hendricks, who saw limited time Saturday (rushing twice for 16 yards) could see more action as well.
That’s the last time St. John’s returned a punt for a touchdown. Mike Zauhar accomplished the feat. So it was a refreshing bright spot Saturday when junior Jake Essler returned one 85 yards for a touchdown in the first half.
“I got a few good blocks,” Essler said. “Bobby Fischer threw a good one. Trevor Warner had one too. Things just kind of opened up for me.”
Essler started returning kickoffs against Concordia last week. Saturday, he became the team’s starting punt returner as well.
“I got the chance against St. Thomas (two weeks ago) near the end of the game and it went well,” Essler said. “I think that helped convince the coaches to give me a shot.”
He made that shot count Saturday, doing something that hadn’t been done at the school in eight years.
“It was great that we finally got one,” Essler said. “It’s been frustrating for all of us on special teams that we haven’t been able to.”
Around the MIAC:
Elsewhere in the conference Saturday, Augsburg hung tough, but Bethel hung on for a 21-20 victory in Minneapolis: http://athletics.bethel.edu/news/2012/9/29/FB_0929124814.aspx
* St. Thomas pulled away in the second half to beat Carleton 47-24 in Northfield: http://www.tommiesports.com/ftbl/news/Carle_929.html
* Gustavus rolled past Hamline 37-0 at home: http://athletics.blog.gustavus.edu/2012/09/29/football-uses-strong-ground-game-to-push-past-hamline-37-0/
Concordia was off this week, awaiting a big road game at Bethel next week.