There has been a long-held contention that the worst football loss ever witnessed came on Oct. 6, 2012, at Royal Stadium in Arden Hills. The victims were Concordia (Moorhead) and coach Terry Horan.
Bethel was inside the 10-yard line in the final seconds, quarterback Erik Peterson was sacked, there was a fumble, it was recovered by the Cobbers, and a 14-7 victory was secure.
Then, through an amazing set of circumstances, Bethel was awarded one last play with 0:00 on the clock. The Royals scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion for a 15-14 victory.
On Saturday, again at Royal Stadium, and in late-game snow, Bethel came up with its contender for worst ever loss — 29-28 to St. John’s, on a touchdown scored with 0:01 on the clock, in the first MIAC championship game featuring division winners.
This was Bethel’s second loss of the season, both narrowly to St. John’s, and is likely to cost it a berth in the 32-team NCAA Division III bracket that will be announced Sunday.
St. John’s Gary Fasching and Bethel’s Steve Johnson were having the pregame, on-field chat and Fasching said: “That’s the trouble with this division system we’ve started in the MIAC. It’s going to make it tougher, not easier, to get two teams in the field.”
There are only five at-large berths in Division III, and Bethel probably will be punished for having two losses, even though both were to the No. 5-rated Johnnies.
The Royals appeared to have Saturday’s game won more than twice:
First, when they dominated the first half behind quarterback Jaran Roste and led 21-8. Second, when freshman Jacob Holmen blocked a punt as cleanly as possible and David Brandt ran it in for touchdown anda 28-15 lead late in the third period.
And finally, when the Royals defense stopped the Johnnies with a four-and-out with 2:59 remaining and took over at the St. John’s 34.
Bethel rushed three times and the St. John’s timeouts were gone. On fourth-and-5, a pass from backup quarterback George Bolt to the Royals’ terrific freshman receiver, Joey Kidder, was broken up.
St. John’s had the ball at its 29 with 1:59 left and headed into what was now blowing snow. Chris Backes, a senior and career backup until Aaron Syverson broke a fibula in Game 7, threw a couple of passes that weren’t close.
With each of those, the cheers grew louder from Bethel’s large fandom. The Royals had lost seven straight to the Johnnies. The last win was in 2013, also the year of Bethel’s last MIAC title.
Both droughts appeared to be ending.
“I had not thrown a ball in the snow for a long time,” Backes said. “The first couple of passes, the ball was slipping in my hand. I told myself, ‘Concentrate. Grip it. Turn it loose.’ ”
Seemingly out of nowhere, receiver Jimmy Buck was open in the middle, Backes hit him and for a moment it looked like it might go the distance before a trip-up tackle.
“A touchdown would’ve been great, but what I really had to do was make sure I caught it,” Buck said.
That pass play went for 36 yards. Then, the Johnnies went quickly and Backes took off left for 25 yards to the 10.
Two runs, an incomplete pass, and St. John’s was at the Bethel 3 and the clock was rolling. It was under 10 and Backes still was getting his receivers organized. Then it was at 5 and the QB was taking a final look.
Worried the clock would run out? “No, because Chris is extra smart; he’s been a 4.0 student his whole life,” Fasching said. “His composure was incredible. He knew exactly what he wanted.”
What Backes saw as the best possibility was a pass to the left pylon to Alex Larson, a 6-7 tight end. He threw it, Larson snatched it, and Conor Pavelko kicked the winning point into the snow.
Backes threw it high enough so only you could get it? “That was the idea,” Larson said, still smiling widely in the maze of Johnnies and fans on the field.
Somewhere in the football ether, there was also a smile from John Gagliardi, for 60 years the Johnnies coach before Fasching, 489 wins and dozens with the reaction, “How did that happen?”
Fasching nodded and said: “Yup. This was definitely a Gagliardi win.”
And a Terry Horan loss, this time for Bethel’s Johnson — coach of this stout team with the MIAC’s No. 1 player, the excellent Roste (injured late in the game), but saddled with a crushing 0-2 vs. the Johnnies.
Patrick Reusse is a sports columnist who writes three columns per week. Write to Patrick by e-mailing [email protected] and including his name in the subject line.
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