The Bethel Royals opened this football season on the road against the Dubuque Spartans, 2015 champions of the Iowa Conference.
“We had played Wartburg a half-dozen times and wanted to schedule a different team from that conference,” Bethel coach Steve Johnson said. “When we scheduled the game a while back, we didn’t know we would be getting the defending champs.”
Bethel ran 100 plays and had 35 first downs. The Royals totaled 738 yards, with 294 rushing and 444 passing.
“Our offense was ridiculous, and I knew it would be,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of weapons, as many and maybe more than we’ve had here in my 28 years.”
There was another aspect of last Saturday’s game in Dubuque that was ridiculous:
A hundred plays, 35 first downs and 738 yards were not enough for the Royals to open with a victory.
Dubuque 70, Bethel 53.
“In 300 games as a coach, I’ve never seen one like it,” Johnson said. “We have good athletes on defense but mostly younger guys.
“I have to take responsibility for what happened. We didn’t make it simple enough. We didn’t adapt. We need to keep it simple until our defense gets more experience.”
Johnson shook his head. “We had some longer drives, and also drives when we scored fast, but not like them,” he said. “Three times in a row, they scored in one play. That kid … he runs 10.9 [in 100 meters]. We used a safety over the top, and he still was running past us.”
The kid was Dubuque’s Najee Toomer, a 5-10, 155-pound senior receiver. He caught touchdown passes of 81 and 65 yards on the first plays of drives, and 63 yards on a second play.
Jonathan Duarte, another wide receiver, had receptions of 60 and 43 yards on first plays.
For Bethel, Bryce Marquardt also had touchdown receptions of 63 and 68 yards from Andrew Dzurik on first plays of drives.
Connor Feckley was 31-for-47 for 634 yards and eight touchdowns as Dubuque’s quarterback. Dzurik, coming back from a 2015 injury, was 33-for-50 for 416 yards and three touchdowns for Bethel. Bridge Tusler also rushed for five touchdowns.
As Steve Johnson, now 60 and a football lifer, stated: Never seen a game like this.
The shock to people who follow MIAC football is seeing such a shootout involving Bethel. Over the past two decades, Bethel has spent most seasons battling for conference titles, and doing so with hard-nosed, clock-eating running games and outstanding defense.
“We have the talent to do some things on offense … players well-suited to play fast,” Johnson said. “The plan is to be aggressive offensively, and also on defense.”
The offensive depth for the Royals is certainly impressive, starting at quarterback:
Dzurik is a senior from Lancaster, Pa., and the thrower. Trey Anderson, a sophomore from White Bear Lake, was the starter last season and is the runner. Johnson also said the quarterback in waiting, freshman Jake Marsh from Wayzata, is “really good.”
Tusler, a junior from Osseo, rivals St. Thomas’ Jordan Roberts as the best back in the league. Johnson also raves about Gunnar Bloom, a sophomore from Rogers, and then there are the receivers:
Marquardt, a senior from Champlin Park; Jackson Canfield, a 6-4 sophomore from Providence Academy; Drew Neuville, a senior tight end from Green Bay; and Tusler (among others) out of the backfield.
Yes, a lot of weapons to do some things, but 70 points, 634 yards and eight touchdowns allowed passing ….
What’s the shock level? Or: Is there a season to look back on where a bad opener was followed by an outstanding season?
“We have a memorable one,” Johnson said. “We lost the opener at Buena Vista in 2007, then went on a 12-game winning streak before losing to Mount Union in the national semifinals.”
The league has changed since then. St. Thomas went 2-6 in ’07 and changed coaches. Glenn Caruso came in to turn the Tommies into the MIAC giants and a national power.
Bethel has Carthage (Kenosha, Wis.) on Saturday in its home opener, and that should be victory No. 198 for Johnson. He’ll get to 200 and a few more this fall, but to repeat 2007, the Royals’ fast-playing, high-octane offense is going to need some help.
“Coaches always talk about their defense getting tired,” Johnson said. “This was a first for me. Dubuque scored so fast and we had the ball so much, I thought our offense got tired.”