Senior quarterback Tom Keefe’s next start will the first one of his Bethel career. But he showed little inexperience on Saturday as he helped the Royals rally for a 34-27 victory over Wartburg in the NCAA Division III playoffs.
With starting quarterback Erik Peterson knocked out with a shoulder injury, Keefe entered the game and threw a 20-yard strike on his first pass attempt. He finished nine of 12 for 148 yards and two touchdowns to help the Royals (12-0) advance to the quarterfinals.
They will host North Central College next Saturday “with a quarterback who stayed [on the team],” Bethel coach Steve Johnson said.
“[Keefe] hasn’t started a game. He’s a senior, but he stayed in the battle.”
Keefe took over toward the end of the third quarter and led the Royals close enough for Andrew O’Reilly to kick a 30-yard field goal to give them a 17-14 lead with 12 minutes, 54 seconds left. But Wartburg (9-3) of Waverly, Iowa, came back quickly with a 75-yard touchdown pass from Logan Schrader to Donald Miller with 12:38 left.
Bethel blocked the extra point attempt, and Matt Mehlhorn scooped up the ball and returned it to the end zone. Officials initially gave Bethel one point for the return, making the score 20-18.
Keefe hooked up with wide receiver Jared Schultz for a 56-yard score, and the Royals converted the two-point pass to make it 26-20.
Meanwhile, the rule on the blocked kick return was being examined. Officials were alerted that two points should have been awarded for Mehlhorn’s return, and fans roared as the score was adjusted to 27-20.
Wartburg’s Brandon Domeyer scored on a 5-yard run to tie the score after the extra point with 2:50 left.
Keefe remained cool, though, and drove the Royals down the field and hit Brandon Marquardt with a swing pass that turned into a 24-yard touchdown with 1:53 left.
Keefe joked that when he first entered the game he thought of something profound to say in the huddle but forgot it by the time he ran out to the field, so he just called the play.
“I really didn’t have much time to think about it,” Keefe said, “which was probably very helpful. Jared was open [on the first pass] and it helped me get into a rhythm. It was a rush. It’s fun to play in a playoff game. Having receivers who can catch and guys who can block helped me remain pretty poised.”
Wartburg drove to the Royals 15 with 2.5 seconds left. Some Bethel players on the sideline took a knee and held teammates hands as Schrader hit Domeyer with a pass, but Domeyer was stopped at the 5-yard line by Landen Strilzuk and Seth Mathis as time expired.
“We were talking after the game,” Bethel cornerback Josh Treimer said. “It was probably the most emotionally draining game we have ever been a part of, especially those last couple of minutes.’’