Bethel improves to 8-2 behind 373 yards of total offense from QB Erik Peterson
Running back Jesse Phenow leaps over the pile for his second touchdown against Saint John's on Nov. 10. The junior finished an injury-plagued regular season with 291 yards rushing and five touchdowns. | Matt Kelley
Sports | Matt Kelley
A week after a devastating loss at St. Olaf, the Bethel football team took care of business Saturday by winning its regular-season finale against Saint John’s 27-22, keeping its playoff hopes alive.
The No. 22 Royals (8-2, 6-2 MIAC) moved the ball very well and utilized a timely turnover to get the home win, likely the last game of the season at Royal Stadium.
After the teams traded field goals on the opening possessions, Bethel running back Jesse Phenow scored the game’s first touchdown – a 1-yard run that finished a 12-play drive – to give Bethel a 10-3 first-quarter lead. That set the tone for a see-saw first half in which neither team punted.
After the Johnnies answered with another field goal, quarterback Erik Peterson led the Royals on an 11-play, 78-yard drive in response, which he capped off with a 1-yard touchdown run, his seventh of the season.
Peterson’s passing totals were impressive on the day, which was unseasonably conducive to throwing with temperatures above 60 degrees. The sophomore completed 23 of his 33 attempts for 267 yards.
After yet another efficient performance, Peterson will almost surely break the school record for completion percentage in a season. The current record was set in 2000 when now-quarterbacks coach Scott Kirchoff completed 62.4 percent of his attempts. With an unsure playoff future, Peterson is 166-for-249 this season, good for 66.7 percent. If the Royals make the playoffs, the Orono native could misfire on his next 16 attempts and still set the record.
Bethel led 17-13 at half but captured the momentum immediately after the break. On the first possession of the third quarter, senior linebacker Erik Smith intercepted a Saint John’s pass. The Royals offense converted the turnover into Phenow’s second rushing touchdown of the afternoon.
“There was a receiver who ran underneath me and was trying to get to the first down marker,” Smith said. “I read the quarterback, and he kind of threw the ball in my lap.”
Both Smith and head coach Steve Johnson credited the defensive line for forcing the errant throw. Although the Royals didn’t record a sack in the game, the defensive line pressured Johnnies quarterback Connor Bruns and forced him to throw on the run for most of the day.
“I’m really proud of those guys up front,” Johnson said. “They’re undersized but overathletic. Usually that formula lets you wear down, but those guys don’t. They’re tough suckers and they never quit – they just go and go and go.”
The Bethel offense racked up 26 first downs and 484 yards of total offense, 217 of which came on the ground. Although they were able to move the chains, Peterson did throw two interceptions.
The first was on a hopeful toss to receiver Jay Hilbrands right before halftime and did little damage. The other came with just over a minute to play in the game, with the Royals leading 27-14. Peterson scrambled to avoid pressure and fired a ball into a densely covered end zone. The turnover led to a Saint John’s score that reduced the lead to 27-22.
The ensuing onside kick traveled only nine yards, however – rather than the minimum of 10 – and Bethel took over possession to kneel out the remaining clock.
Now all the Royals players and coaches can do is wait to see if they’ll be playing next week.
There are 32 playoff bids in Division III, and 24 of them are given to conference champions. Since St. Thomas will receive the MIAC’s automatic bid, Bethel hopes it is one of the seven best teams that didn’t win their conferences, according to the selection committee. The remaining bid is given to the best of the teams that have no conference affiliation (i.e. “Independents”).
The playoff teams, seedings and matchups will be announced at 5 p.m. on Sunday on NCAA.com.
The latest projections of d3football.com have the Royals in the playoffs, but nothing is guaranteed. The team will stream the selection show live and watch together to see if they’ll be playing next Saturday.
“You’re always fighting for another week with the guys, but no matter what happens, it’s going to end eventually,” Smith said. “After playing as well as we did today, all you can hope for is more. If not, that’s the way it goes.”