As St. John's prepared for Saturday's football game at Bethel, its defense built its strategy around one basic concept. "They're a very strong offense when it comes to controlling the clock and moving down the field," defensive back Trevor Warner said of the Royals. "We knew we had to take away what they like to do."
The No. 13 Johnnies understood that would be easier said than done against one of the top rushing teams in the MIAC. But they put the brakes on Bethel from the start, then watched their offense do the rest in a 21-0 victory at Royal Stadium. St. John's (8-1, 6-1 MIAC) held Bethel to 97 total yards in the first half and 223 for the game, and it forced four turnovers to hand the Royals (5-4, 4-3) their first shutout loss since 2012.
Bethel entered the game averaging 247 yards per game on the ground, the 24th-best mark in NCAA Division III. It gained only 113 on Saturday as the Johnnies held senior Marshall Klitzke to 59 rushing yards and knocked starting quarterback Trey Anderson out of the game. Anderson hurt his left knee when he was hit near the sideline in the second quarter.
The freshman watched the rest of the game on crutches from the sidelines while the Johnnies protected a 21-0 halftime lead. Quarterback Nick Martin threw for two touchdowns and ran for another, and running back Sam Sura gained 102 yards to move within 242 of the St. John's career rushing record.
A Sept. 26 loss to St. Thomas meant the Johnnies needed to win their remaining six games to contend for an NCAA playoff berth. They have gone 5-0 since then and finish the regular season next Saturday at home against St. Olaf.
"I think everyone's kind of figured out we found our mojo," said Warner, a senior who grabbed one of the Johnnies' three interceptions. "Our offense is rolling, and our defense is playing a lot better. We really found what works and how to stop our opponents."
Saturday's victory represented a major step toward the Johnnies' vision of making the playoffs. They had lost four consecutive games at Bethel dating to 2005, and the Royals had won seven of the past nine meetings.
Martin, who completed seven of 14 passes for 99 yards, finished off the Johnnies' first possession with an 18-yard touchdown strike to Josh Bungum. Bethel's first three drives ended with a punt, a lost fumble and a blocked punt that gave the Johnnies the ball at the Royals 16. That set up a 5-yard scoring run by Martin, and he followed up with a 31-yard TD pass to Nick Simon with 10 minutes, 25 seconds remaining in the first half.
Klitzke said the Johnnies excelled at stopping the run, and Bethel struggled when Anderson's injury forced it to adjust its strategy. The Royals planned to rely on a ground game anchored by Klitzke and Anderson. But they had to change course when backup quarterback Andrew Dzurik — a stronger passer — took over late in the second quarter.
Bethel outgained St. John's in the second half, with 126 yards to the Johnnies' 116. The Royals' best scoring chances imploded when they failed to convert on fourth-and-1 at the St. John's 17 late in the third quarter, and the Johnnies intercepted a Dzurik pass to end one drive that got to the Johnnies 14 and another that reached the 32.