Concordia (Moorhead) appeared to have the game won, but a late penalty set the Royals up for dramatics.
Erik Peterson, Bethel's sophomore quarterback, had been sacked three times and bashed frequently by the defense of Concordia (Moorhead) on Saturday afternoon in Arden Hills.
Peterson and the Royals were trailing 14-7 and starting from their 29-yard line with 1 minute, 24 seconds remaining. The obstacles facing Bethel were Concordia's hard-nosed defense and no timeouts.
The Royals sputtered until Mitch Hallstrom stuck one hand between two Concordia defenders and brought in a 30-yard reception to the Cobbers 29. The homecoming crowd went ape over that catch, but seven plays later, Bethel was at the 17 with 1.9 seconds and one play left.
Peterson stood in the pocket and here came the Concordia rush -- this time end Paul Streich from the blind side. Streich drilled Peterson as he prepared to throw, and the ball flew loose.
Peterson got up as the Concordia players and fans on the far side of the field celebrated wildly.
"Erik almost fell into my arms,'' running back Jesse Phenow said. "I told him, 'Don't worry. It was a great game ... a tough game. We gave it everything.'"
The melancholy of defeat in that embrace lasted for a few seconds, and then coaches, players and fans on both sides of the field noticed that a flag had been thrown.
"I didn't know what it was, but I knew we hadn't done anything,'' Bethel coach Steve Johnson said.
This is what it was: The football was loose and Concordia players were in position for a recovery. Defensive end Tim Garry was given official credit for the recovery, and he went down the sideline 74 yards to the end zone ... all this with 0:00 on the scoreboard clock.
The problem was, Concordia players had come off the sideline and onto the field while the ball still was in play. There's a video that shows at least one Concordia player a couple of steps onto the field before the fumble is recovered.
The flag was for unsportsmanlike conduct, and Bethel received another last play from the Concordia 9. Peterson found Jay Hilbrands, his favorite receiver on this cold afternoon, on the left side of the end zone for a touchdown.
Johnson didn't hesitate in calling for a two-point conversion.
"I wasn't surprised,'' Concordia coach Terry Horan said. "They had us on our heels a little after what had happened.''
Johnson said the two-pointer was a play the Royals had been practicing for a while to be used in a goal-line situation. There was a clearout to the right, and then receiver Hallstrom came across the backfield for a pass and was wide open, cruising into the end zone to give Bethel the unlikeliest of victories, 15-14.
It also gave Horan, and his tough-as-nails senior linebacker, Mat Moenkedick, and his road grader of a fullback, senior Brent Baune, and his multi-skilled quarterback, sophomore Griffin Neal, and the rest of the athletes that held down Bethel's offense and created problems for Bethel's defense for a full 60 minutes of play and then lost in an American football version of extra time ... it gave them the longest bus ride ever from the St. Paul suburbs to Moorhead.
Horan was asked what explanation he received from the officials for the flag that gave Bethel the second last try.
"They said we were on the field celebrating before the recovery was made,'' Horan said. "I didn't think so, but that was the call.
"Our defense had one whale of a day. We have a strong team. We have strong leadership. We'll recover from this.''
Horan was saying this as the hundreds of Bethel students who had stormed from the stands celebrated with the Royals at the other end of the field. Included in the group was Phenow, the junior running back from Richfield.
Phenow is 5-9, 216 pounds. His role model for football hair is Clay Matthews. He was back after missing three games with a sprained MCL. He has a running style that's unique. He accepts the handoff and takes off madly -- not controlled madness, but actual madness.
"I love playing Concordia,'' Phenow said. "They come at you; we come at you. It's going to be a north and south game, which is great, because I'm a north and south player.''
Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM. email@example.com