Mehlhorn saves season in 24-23 playoff thriller

November 17, 2012 | 5:44 p.m.

The Concordia-Chicago Cougars gave Bethel everything they could handle in round one 

Mehlhorn saves season in 24-23 playoff thriller

Junior safety J.D. Mehlhorn tips away a Jake Koehler pass on the decisive two-point conversion attempt Saturday against Concordia-Chicago. | Matt Kelley

Sports | Matt Kelley

With a swipe of his left hand, Bethel safety J.D. Mehlhorn knocked down a pass on a two-point attempt with 18 seconds remaining, denying Concordia-Chicago a Cinderella upset and preserving a 24-23 playoff win for the No. 21 Royals.

It was fitting for Bethel (9-2, 6-2 MIAC), who won two regular season games by one-point margins, to win its opening round playoff game in such nervous fashion. The Cougars, however, were forced to end their season in defeat after a 10-0 regular season.

“In 24 years, I don’t think I remember three one-point wins, and we’ve had three in a couple months,” said Bethel head coach Steve Johnson. “In camp we talked about giving your heart for 60 minutes, and we try to do that.”

The decisive two-point attempt was set up by a 1-yard Andrew Maddox touchdown run, which capped a nine-play, 80 yard drive. The clutch sequence was a masterpiece for senior quarterback Jake Koehler, who was five-of-six for 68 yards on the drive. Koehler torched the Royals secondary most of the day, totaling 390 passing yards and 68 percent completion. In the end, the senior was one pass – and two points – shy of extending Concordia’s season.

Mehlhorn’s performance ended up dictating the game throughout the day. The junior deflected two deep balls early, but many of Concordia’s long plays victimized Mehlhorn on deep passes over the middle. With the season on the line, though, Mehlhorn was prepared to step up. Koehler faked a handoff and threw to his left, trying to connect with receiver Trent Yancy along the sideline.

“(Yancy) had been working me inside all game, and I knew he was trying to set me up to go outside,” Mehlhorn said. “I’d seen some stuff on film that he might go outside. So I jammed him hard inside, worked out and was able to make a play.”

The game began with a flurry of excitement, with the Cougar fans, enjoying the school’s first ever playoff game, providing early energy. But Bethel’s defense withstood the early push and intercepted two passes inside its own 20-yard line in the first quarter – one by senior cornerback Jordan Anderson and another by junior linebacker Seth Mathis.

“It was good to take the momentum away from them, and I think they knew it was going to be a tough game for them right away,” Mathis said. “The coaches put us in great places to make plays.”

The Royals’ offense used the early momentum to cash in on a 40-yard Nathaniel Van Loon field goal. On its following drive Bethel went up 10-0 on a 22-yard touchdown pass from Erik Peterson to Mitch Hallstrom. The score, which came on a fourth-and-7 play, was Hallstrom’s first of the season.

The junior receiver wasn’t done, however. On the Royals’ next drive, Hallstrom lined up in the slot and caught a horizontal pass from Peterson, as he does several times a game on bubble screens. This time Hallstrom tricked the Cougars’ defense by throwing downfield to senior Jay Hilbrands for a 23-yard score. The pass floated and was nearly intercepted, but it wobbled into Hilbrands’ arms for a 17-3 Bethel lead. Hallstrom, who lead the MIAC in receptions, finished with eight catches for 100 yards.

Despite the glitz and trickery, Bethel carried just a 17-10 lead into halftime, a sign of the battle to come.

Leading 24-17, the Royals had a chance to put the game away with just under nine minutes remaining. After a 65-yard drive, Erik Peterson attempted a quarterback sneak from the 1-yard line. A score would have likely put the Cougars out of reach, but the sophomore fumbled. The ball rolled through the end zone and out of bounds, giving Concordia the ball.

Peterson, a first-year starter playing in his first playoff game, continued his efficient season. He completed 16 of 23 attempts for 161 yards and a touchdown, although he was sacked three times.

But it was freshman running back Marshall Klitzke – all 5-foot-8 and 181 pounds of him – who put the offense on his back and carried the Royals to victory. Klitzke finished with 134 yards on 18 carries, and his 7.4 yards per carry allowed Bethel to keep its defense on the sidelines, tired from chasing Concordia’s explosive athletes.

“We practice hard and play together,” Klitzke said after the narrow victory. “We have that part down – when it comes to crunch time, we’re going to get it done.”

With the win, Bethel moves on to the second round of the NCAA playoffs. The Royals will travel to No. 5 University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh (11-0, 7-0 WIAC) next Saturday. The Titans scored 55 straight points in their first round game, winning 55-10 over St. Scholastica. The game will be at noon Central at Titan Stadium.


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