COLLEGEVILLE, MINN. — St. John's had advanced through the first round of the NCAA Division III football playoffs with an easy victory over Lake Forest, Ill., last Saturday.
Gary Fasching, the Johnnies' coach, wasn't feeling great and decided to take a COVID test on Sunday. It came back positive and he soon had symptoms.
St. John's announced Monday that Jerry Haugen, co-defensive coordinator and in his 46th season as a football assistant, would be interim head coach. It became apparent by midweek that Fasching wouldn't be cleared for Saturday's game with Linfield, an unbeaten perennial D-III power from Oregon and the Northwest Conference.
Linfield had topped 50 points in seven of its 10 victories. Quarterback Wyatt Smith, the son of coach Joe Smith, is a senior with 70% passer percentage. He's now thrown for 3,275 yards, with 40 touchdowns and four interceptions in 391 pass attempts.
"The best quarterbacks are those that throw either completions or incompletions, and not interceptions,'' Haugen said. "That's this guy. He's like a point guard, the way he sees things and distributes the ball.''
Haugen was saying this in the NCAA's formal postgame news conference. The Johnnies came first, since that's the NCAA style — coaches and a couple of players from the losing team come first.
Smith threw for three touchdowns, no interceptions, and Linfield ended a couple of streaks in beating the Johnnies 31-28.
Linfield had lost three times to St. John's in playoff games — the first by 33-0 in the 1965 NAIA national title game, then back-to-back in 2002 and 2003. The first of those was John Gagliardi's 400th career victory and the second helped ensure Blake Elliott's standing as an all-time legend as a Johnnie.
St. John's had won seven straight home playoff games. The previous loss was a shocking upset vs. Coe in 2009. There wasn't much shocking about this one, not when it turned out that the Johnnies couldn't run effectively against Linfield.
And certainly not when the Johnnies gave away two touchdowns tied to the punting game — first one dropped by returner Ravi Alston, the star receiver, and then another when punter Spencer Ell could not field a one-hop snap.
Linfield was stopped on third down on its 42. St. John's, tied 7-7 and badly needing an offensive reset at halftime, called timeout with 32 seconds left.
Alston was returning punts for the first time in his four seasons. He didn't get under the kick, reached for the ball, had it hit off his hands and the Wildcats recovered at the Johnnies 20.
Three plays later, Linfield had a touchdown and a 14-7 lead.
Then, the misconnection between snapper and punter came at the end of the Johnnies' first possession of the second half. Linfield took over at the SJU 38 and scored again.
The formula for success going in had to be to give Linfield's defensive front facemasks full of hard-running Henry Trost, put together long drives, and keep the ball away from Smith.
That strategy looked promising for roughly 10 seconds, when Trost went wide for 17 yards on the Johnnies' first play. The rest of his afternoon resulted in 16 carries for 43 yards.
The Johnnies totaled 103 rushing yards on 34 carries. A half-dozen of their punts followed possessions that lasted six or fewer plays.
"They had some good tackles on that line,'' quarterback Chris Backes said. "It's still always good to give the ball to Henry Trost. He can break one any time.''
Backes paused and said: "It just didn't happen today.''
Backes is a senior from St. Cloud Tech and was a three-season backup. Then, starter Aaron Syverson suffered a broken leg in Game 7 at Gustavus and Backes took over.
Lot of guts. Lot of smarts. Not Syverson's arm or speed.
And without an effective running game, Backes had to go from a game manager to a playmaker. He made two big throws — to a wide open Jimmy Buck for a 61-yard touchdown, and then to Blake Patrick for a 52-yard TD with 39 seconds remaining — but there were too many short possessions.
Alston, the MIAC's player of the year, beat the extra coverage for a couple of great catches late. Asked about the lack of targets (three) on Saturday, Alston shrugged that off, looked at Backes and said, "This guy right here is the best teammate I've ever had.''
The Johnnies defense received a one-sentence text from Fasching at halftime: "Take better angles.''
Alston was asked about Fasching's absence and said: "It was an unfortunate situation this week. I talked to him after the game, with some other players. We're just hoping he will be feeling better soon.''