ST. PETER, MINN. – St. John's and Bethel were playing Saturday on the Johnnies' home field in Collegeville. Most in attendance probably figured this would be the first of two games, with the teams meeting again as division winners in the MIAC's "championship week" on Nov. 11.
The division format started in 2021 after the departure of St. Thomas and the addition of Macalester and new league member St. Scholastica to the football competition.
There's a chance that a repeat of the first two title games — St. John's vs. Bethel — is not guaranteed this time.
Two strong teams that could be division challengers were playing Saturday at Lloyd Hollingsworth Field, the fine Division III football yard that Gustavus Adolphus opened in 2007.
The Gusties are located in the Northwoods Division with St. John's, and Augsburg in the Skyline Division with Bethel.
Carleton (Northwoods) and Concordia (Skyline) could disagree, but the résumés from 2022 — Gustavus 6-2 in the conference, Augsburg almost knocking off Bethel to reach the title game — suggested these were the main challengers as conference play opened Saturday.
And that turned into more than a suggestion on this gray afternoon, as the Auggies and the Gusties put on a football show that was puzzling and tremendous.
Augsburg 33, Gustavus 31. Somehow.
Gustavus, after putting itself in a 14-0 hole with several mistakes in the first quarter, had peppered the Augsburg defense with fierce runs from multiple backs and continuous receptions by senior record-breaker Jake Breitbach.
Yet, the Gusties were still down 27-24, and there was only 1:15 left when they took over at their 16 after stopping an Augsburg drive.
The solution for digging out of this hole for quarterback George Sandven was to hit Breitbach, the receiver from Robbinsdale Armstrong, and have him turn it into 42 yards.
Hamsa Kahin, a "What's he doing in D-III?" linebacker for Augsburg, appeared to have finished the Gusties with a sack that left them on fourth-and-16 from the Auggies 38.
Sandven threw toward Breitbach in the right corner of the end zone. Incomplete. Game over. And then came a flag for pass interference.
One can only imagine the true thoughts for this call being expressed across the way on the Augsburg sideline.
The next play was a 23-yard TD hookup to Caden Kleinschmidt. Gustavus led for the first time — 31-27, with 22 seconds remaining.
Depressing on the Augsburg sideline? "Not really," said senior quarterback Cade Sheehan. "I knew we had 22 seconds and a timeout. We had time to get in position, so I could throw something near the end zone and hope one of our outstanding receivers would make a play."
D.J. Monroe brought the kickoff 25 yards to the Augsburg 43-yard line. "I wanted to hit our big old tight end [Michael Ims] in the middle of the field and call our last timeout," Sheehan said.
Which he did — 23 yards to the Gusties 34, with seven seconds remaining.
Now it was wideout time: Dominic Smith, with two touchdown catches; or Braden Tretter, great hands; or Tyrone Wilson, a sophomore from the receiver hotbed of New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva High.
"Do they play nine-man football there?" Wilson was asked later.
Looking a tad shocked, Wilson said, "No, 11-man … Class 2A."
Last month, Sheehan was talking up his receiving corps and said, "We have to use that young fella more this season, too."
This was Sheehan's thought as he left the huddle for this throw: "Tyrone's taller, so I thought that was the place to go."
Down the right sideline. Near the pylon. The young fella brings down the football with two defenders trying to contest him.
Touchdown. One second left. Auggies now 3-0, playing host to St. John's next week.
Handshakes soon were exchanged among the players, with a couple of Auggies defensive backs stopping to say to Breitbach (15 catches, 180 yards), "We couldn't stop you."
And Derrin Lamker, Augsburg's coach, found Sheehan and said, "You're the best quarterback Augsburg ever has had."
Pause. "Which means, better than me," added Lamker, holder of Augsburg's passing records and the quarterback when the Auggies won a second-ever (and last) MIAC title in 1997.
"We pulled out an early game at Gustavus — scored late, won in overtime — that season, too," Lamker said. "Hopefully, this is an omen."