Central runs past Nebraska Wesleyan; Hawkins sets football passing mark

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 PELLA—The rushing game the Central College football team has been looking for emerged in a big way as the Dutch outlasted Nebraska Wesleyan University 49-35 Saturday.

Jason Hopp after a big gain against Nebraska Weslyan. (photo by Steve Woodhouse)

            Running back Jason Hopp (sophomore, Earlham) erupted for a career-high 164 yards on 20 carries with one touchdown as the Dutch (6-1 overall, 4-1 Amercian Rivers) ground out 373 yards on 58 attempts overall. That’s the most Central rushing yards since a 419-yard outburst Sept. 6, 2017 at Buena Vista University. It’s also the first 100-yard rushing day for a Central player this season.

            “We did a nice job of finding some things through formations and the plays that we ran,” coach Jeff McMartin said. “I thought Jason and the other backs showed great vision utilizing Cameron, too, he’s got a great burst.”

One of Blaine Hawkins’s touchdowns against Nebraska Wesleyan. (photo by Steve Woodhouse)

            Quarterback Blaine Hawkins (junior, Ankeny) had his best rushing day of the year with 94 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries but was efficient through the air as well. His two TD passes give him 59 for his career, eclipsing the school record of 58 set by Tim Connell (2004-07).

            “Blaine’s been a playmaker for three years now,” McMartin said. “He does a great job and makes good decisions. He’s also had time to throw, give the line credit, and he’s had great wide receivers. He’s had (career receptions leader) Sam Markham (2014-17) and the current crop that we have. Those guys go up and get the football and they make plays. It’s been a great combination of things but give him a lot of credit, he’s found a way and made great plays at critical times for us.”

Blaine Hawkins leaps for a few more yards. (photo by Steve Woodhouse)

            But the Saturday play fans will tuck in their mental archives was on the ground when Hawkins scrambled for a first down, then nimbly prevented his knee from grazing the turf when he was taken down, rolling through the tackle to pop up and sprint the final 12 yards of a 31-yard touchdown run.

            “It was fantastic,” McMartin said. “His alertness to not go to a knee and to know that was still there. It was a highlight-reel type of play.”

            Central finished with 560 yards of total offense yet had to withstand a 62-pass air assault from Nebraska Wesleyan (3-4 overall, 1-4 conference). Jonathan Curti, the conference passing leader, completed 39 of 67 passes for 433 yards and five touchdowns. Curti was also the team’s top rusher with 64 yards on 16 carries, despite being sacked three times.

Nebraska Wesleyan’s Curti is brought down by the Central defense. Curti had a great game. (photo by Steve Woodhouse)

            “Their quarterback is a very talented football player,” McMartin said. “There’s nobody in our league who likes facing that guy because he’s elusive, he can run it, he throws off his back foot and completes passes. He kind of breaks a lot of the traditional rules you think about with a quarterback. He’s just a great player and he’s a challenge to defend. They’ve got good receivers and they utilize them really well. They’re a well-coached team.”

          However, Curti was picked off twice. Cornerback Danny Anderson (senior, Boone) made his second interception of the year in the first half, but perhaps the game-saver was a third-quarter pick by linebacker Hunter Maddy (junior, Mystic, Centerville HS), playing in the defensive line. After taking a 24-14 halftime lead, Central saw its advantage cut to 27-21 and the Prairie Wolves had a first down at the 15-yard line looking for the go-ahead score. But as Maddy rushed the passer he snatched Curti’s throw. Central followed with a nine-play, 65-yard drive as back-up quarterback Cameron Bannister (freshman, State Center, West Marshall HS) lined up at running back and sprinted 24 yards for a touchdown and a 35-21 lead. Bannister finished with 66 yards rushing on nine carries.

Hunter Robinson (photo by Steve Woodhouse)

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            “That was a tough play for a defensive lineman and boy, we needed it,” McMartin said. “That was a critical play. The momentum was clearly on their side at that time.”

            Maddy finished with six tackles, including 1.5 sacks and a pass breakup. Linebacker Connor Lewin (senior, Stillman Valley, Ill.) had a career-high 15 tackles. Linebacker Tate O’Tool (senior, Fort Dodge, St. Edmond HS) had eight stops with two pass breakups and cornerback Tre Wilridge (junior, Crowley, La., Tombstone, Ariz. HS) had a career-best four pass breakups.

            Nebraska Wesleyan added 115 yards rushing for 548 yards total offense, the most Central has surrendered since Oct. 28, 2017. But McMartin didn’t fault the team’s defensive effort.

            “They battled,” he said. “They never quit. They were alert. They got key turnovers. Those were huge plays for us.”

Tanner Schminke taking advantage of strong support on a run. (photo by Steve Woodhouse)

            Hawkins completed 18 of 26 passes for 187 yards and two scores. He hit Tanner Schminke (junior, Boone) for a 19-yard TD on Central’s opening possession. The record-breaker came early in the fourth quarter with a 21-yard toss to Erik Knaack (junior, Reinbeck, Gladbrook-Reinbeck HS). Knaack had three catches for 56 yards while Hunter Robinson (senior, Lisbon) had five receptions for 49 yards and ran in a 2-point conversion try.

Erik Knaack (photo by Steve Woodhouse)

            Central also got another flawless performance from pre-season all-America kicker Jonathan Alberts (senior, Huntley, Ill.). He drilled field goals from 23 and 41 yards and was perfect on five extra points. Meanwhile Central’s sometimes inconsistent punting game steadied itself. Anderson had five rugby-style kicks for an average of 38.6 yards, placing two inside the Nebraska Wesleyan 5-yard line while Que Baker-McCaulay (freshman, Mesa, Ariz., Tempe HS) averaged 41.5 yards on two boots with one inside the 20.

            “They were both effective,” McMartin said. “I liked where we put the ball. We had some longer punts. This was the best we’ve punted all season in terms of effectiveness.”

            Central heads into a daunting three-week closing stretch next Saturday at Indianola against Simpson College in a 1 p.m. game. Simpson is 4-3 overall and 3-2 in the league after seeing its late rally come up empty in a 10-7 defeat at Coe College Saturday. The Dutch pulled off a last-minute win over Simpson at Pella last year, 17-16.

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