Johnnies rely on passing to grab the early lead

– On most Saturdays this season, Nick Martin's primary job has been to hand the ball to Sam Sura. The St. John's quarterback rarely got the chance to show he can throw the football, too, but he didn't complain about playing second fiddle to the most productive running back in NCAA Division III.

Martin expected that would change Saturday, when the No. 18 Johnnies faced a Bethel defense that was the best in the MIAC against the run. His passing — combined with a fierce Johnnies defense and another grand game by Sura — paved the way for a 31-8 steamrolling that tied the two teams atop the MIAC standings.

The No. 10 Royals (7-2, 6-1) turned the ball over five times, and Martin threw for two first-half touchdowns to help St. John's (8-1, 6-1) post its first victory over Bethel since 2009.

Sura didn't get much of a break, carrying the ball 40 times for 119 yards and two touchdowns. His eighth 100-yard performance this season left him six yards short of the program record for single-season rushing yards. Still, he was overjoyed to see Martin take a star turn, completing nine of 14 first-half passes for 124 yards and two scores.

"We haven't been throwing the ball too much lately, but we knew coming into this game that we would have to pass,'' said Sura, who has run for 1,469 yards and 14 touchdowns.

"Everyone on the team knew Nick could do it. I think that took [Bethel] a little bit by surprise.''

Martin reverted to his usual role in the second half, throwing only four times. His team ran up a 24-0 lead before Bethel's only score, on a 62-yard pass from Erik Peterson to Bryce Marquardt.

That was the lone bright spot for Peterson. Under the Johnnies' constant pressure, Peterson fumbled the ball away twice and threw two interceptions. Bethel had turned the ball over only 10 times in eight previous games.

"We didn't play very well, and I'm not sure what caused that,'' Royals coach Steve Johnson said. "It's inexplicable. I'm just disappointed in how we played.''

Johnnies coach Gary Fasching said he didn't expect to win by such a wide margin. He credited the game plan devised by offensive coordinator Jim Gagliardi, which used a more balanced attack against a Bethel defense that allowed a MIAC-low 107.6 rushing yards per game.

The Johnnies forced a fumble on Bethel's first possession, then mounted a spirited goal-line stand on their second. An 83-yard Royals drive died at the St. John's 2, after Bethel had first-and-goal from the Johnnies' 7.

Martin then employed that lightly used arm to lead the Johnnies to their first touchdown, setting up the score with a 53-yard pass to Evan Clark and finding J.T. Ford in the end zone on the final play of the first quarter.

"If Bethel was going to stack nine guys in the box and play against Sura, we were going to use our other weapons,'' Martin said. "I love it when we run for 300 yards. We've been doing it all year. But we won today because we were balanced.''

The Johnnies made it 14-0 with 20 seconds left in the half, as Martin's 10-yard touchdown pass to Dan Harrington ended a drive that began at the Bethel 39 after Ben Rossini intercepted Peterson.

In the third quarter, Bethel turned the ball over twice and had only 2:24 of possession time, while Sura extended the Johnnies' lead to 21-0 on a 3-yard run.