Big plays win big games and No. 22-ranked Bethel produced at least two of them Saturday at white, frozen Royal Stadium that defeated No. 9 St. Thomas 21-15 and almost certainly earned them an invitation to the Division III national playoffs.
The first one came early in the regular-season finale for both teams. Freshman quarterback Jaran Roste, on a counter play, ran 93 yards just fast enough for a touchdown and an early 14-0 lead before the game was seven minutes old.
The second came early in the fourth quarter. That’s when — with the score 14-7 as it was at first quarter’s end — the Royals blocked a punt and recovered it in the end zone for a 21-7 lead that stood up. St. Thomas scored a touchdown and converted a two-point play with 2:20 left to cut the lead to six.
“Week 11, in the snow, against a rival,” Roste said. “There’s nothing better.”
Both teams entered Saturday with 8-1 records after each lost to MIAC champion St. John’s in October. Bethel did so 34-16, St. Thomas lost 40-20 the next week.
On Saturday, the Royals overcame with those two aforementioned plays and by rushing for 217 yards against a Tommies team that grudgingly gives up rushing yards.
“I’ve noticed that,” Bethel coach Steve Johnson said. “But we thought we’re a running team, and our quarterback made enough plays.”
It sure helped that Roste busted through the line of scrimmage on a quarterback draw out of a shotgun formation with Bethel backed against it own end zone early in the game.
Once he busted through, he ran free.
“I ran through the hole and just kept running,” said Roste, a former Gophers walk-on who transferred last spring. “I’m not the fastest guy in the world. I just try to run hard.”
He outlasted several pursuing defenders just long enough to reach the other end zone, just when you thought — “Somebody said it was like a bear jumped on his back at the 15,” Johnson said — he might not get there.
Asked if he heard footsteps, Roste said, “I could a little bit. As I got inside the 10, I gave a couple high steps just to ensure nobody swept the ankle. I got a big sigh of relief, but I was disappointed there wasn’t oxygen on the sideline.”
St. Thomas answered with a touchdown of its own just before first quarter ended. The game was scoreless in the second and third quarters, partly because of what Johnson called two of the country’s best defenses and maybe because of a frigid day and a frozen field.
That all ended when Royals senior defensive end Kyle Kilgore blocked St. Thomas quarterback Jacques Perra’s punt on fourth-and-2 from his own 28. Perra punted the ball out of a formation where the Tommies could have either still gone for the first down or kicked away.
Kilgore said a St. Thomas lineman might have “overstepped” his blocking coverage.
“There was an alley,” Kilgore said, “and I was just lucky to be in that position.”
Senior linebacker Trent Substad fell on the backward bounding ball just as it entered the end zone.
“I just saw the ball,” Substad said, “and it was there.”
St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso called that blocked punt and the Royals’ recovery for a touchdown the “difference” in the game.
“Certainly if that didn’t happen, the game could have gone a lot of different ways for either team,” Caruso said.