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Johnson's journey ends in playoffs

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Rio Johnson started his career at East Carolina, and is hoping not to end his 2015 season on Saturday at St. John's.
Dubuque athletics photo 

The Dubuque football team lost its season opener at St. John’s, 45-9. So the fact that the Spartans drew a rematch with SJU in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs might not seem ideal.

But the Spartans – winners of their last eight games – believe they are a different team than they were in Week 1, and they are eager to prove it.

“I think we’ve improved as a team each week, and I think that’s probably been as important as anything,” said Dubuque coach Stan Zweifel, whose team earned an automatic qualification into the playoffs by winning the IIAC with a 7-0 record.

He said he’s not sure if his team has played a complete game yet. But Zweifel liked the effort he saw in individual halves of the Spartans’ last two games.

Zweifel credits winning the turnover battle and playing stout defense for Dubuque’s recent success.

“During that eight-game win streak, we’ve done a great job of limiting people in the run game. We’ve been outstanding at taking the ball away and not letting people stay on the field for long drives.”

As Dubuque has progressed, so as its quarterback. To be fair, junior Rio Johnson needed some time to get back in the swing of things after not stepping on the gridiron for two years.

Johnson’s collegiate career began at East Carolina. He used a redshirt in 2009, served as third-string quarterback in 2010, appeared in four games in 2011 and made just two appearances in 2012.

He decided to transfer and take his chances elsewhere.

“I thought I was going to be able to play that following year, but they said I was ineligible. So instead of wasting two semesters and wasting a year, I just sat out two years,” Johnson explained.

The signal-caller originally looked at schools closer to his home in Atlanta, but become connected with Zweifel through a friend.

“He basically recruited me for 18 months,” Johnson said of Dubuque’s coach.

His interaction with Zweifel and the coach’s style ultimately swayed Johnson to head north and join the D-III ranks.

“He's a great guy. I felt very comfortable coming up here and being around him,” Johnson said. “His play calling and the scheme he's in – I felt I would fit very well into it.”

Johnson said he missed the camaraderie of playing and was happy to get back on the field. However, it took time for him to adjust to a new team.

“He came to us a little bit rusty. But he came with a humbleness about him and a team-player (mentality) about him,” Zweifel explained.

“I think we’ve knocked that rust off of him from being a little inactive,” the coach continued. “And the physical skills are getting better each day.”

Johnson said his timing with his receivers has improved steadily and he has developed a better sense of the offense throughout the season.

“I think what sets Rio most apart is he has an unbelievable poise in the pocket, and he’s got such a feel for the game of football,” Zweifel said. “He’s just a genuine leader.”

Johnson completed touchdown passes to four receivers, compiling 295 yards in Saturday’s 38-16 win over Central. He has completed 66.5 of his passes this season, racking up 2,258 yards and 15 touchdowns.

After beginning the season with consecutive losses, Dubuque won a 31-29 decision at Pacific. But Zweifel was unhappy with his team’s sloppy play in the victory.

“It didn’t feel good. I really still felt like we had a long ways to go,” Zweifel said.

The following week, the coach’s outlook changed, when the Spartans’ defense held Luther to a pair of touchdowns in a 16-14 victory.

“I thought that propelled us, confidence-wise, on the defense to where they’re playing today,” Zweifel said. “After that Luther game, we’ve gotten better every week in all phases – offense, defense and the kicking game.”

Arguably Dubuque’s most important victory came two weeks later versus Wartburg. The Spartans beat the two-time defending IIAC champs, 45-13, marking the first victory over the Knights since Zweifel came to campus in 2008. The victory also spurred Dubuque to its first conference title since 2011.

“They’ve really been kind of a nemesis,” Zweifel said of Wartburg. “I think what that game did was solidify in our minds that we’re a championship team.”

Dubuque is now focused on its rematch with St. John’s.

“We're very excited to get another chance to show we aren't the team that we were in that first game and that we've improved each and every game,” Johnson said. “We're just excited to get another chance to play St. John's.”

In order to have better success this time around, Zweifel said his offense will need a better game plan versus the Johnnies’ fast defense. He said the Spartans need to start better than they did in Week 1 and they need to contain Sam Sura – SJU’s talented running back.

“I think they’ve got the best running back that we’ve faced this year,” Zweifel said. “Our offense needs to stay on the field to be able to do something. Because if we don’t, they’re just too good offensively. They’ll eventually wear you down.”

“It's not a new team. We kind of know what to expect,” Johnson added. “We know what kind of game we have to play to be able to beat these guys.”

Johnson said he is optimistic about Saturday’s playoff game because the offense, defense and special teams are all playing well and the sideline is providing a lot of energy.

“We're on an eight-game winning streak right now, so the guys are real confident,” Johnson said. “And we're all confident in each other that we can get the job done.”

Playoff teams

Nine teams from the West Region are in the postseason field, and two games will feature rematches from the regular season.

In addition to IIAC champion Dubuque traveling to St. John’s for the second time this season, Whitworth will play at Linfield once again. The Wildcats beat their Northwest Conference rival, 52-10, on Oct. 24.

SCIAC winner La Verne will make its first playoff appearance in 20 years, traveling to take on MIAC champ St. Thomas. UMAC champion St. Scholastica will travel to UW-Oshkosh to battle the WIAC title winner. UW-Whitewater hosts St. Norbert in first round action.

Number of the week

14,523 – as in the number of career yards gained by Augsburg quarterback Ayrton Scott. Scott’s yardage total is good for second all-time in Division III history, just 45 yards short of the record held by Mount Union alum Kevin Burke. Scott passed for 272 yards, completing 18-of-25 attempts, and rushed for another 167 yards in Saturday’s 49-42 win over Bethel. He scored once on the ground and threw a touchdown pass to Joey Sonnenfeld while Tyrell Martin rushed for 102 yards and four touchdowns to pace the Auggies.

The rest of the West

Kennedy Johnson returned two punt returns for touchdowns to lead Linfield to a 38-10 win at Pacific Lutheran. The victory marked the program’s 24th unbeaten regular season. … St. Thomas compiled 715 yards of total offense in a 66-9 win at Gustavus Adolphus. Jordan Roberts had 230 yards rushing and three touchdowns while Tucker Trettel chipped in 101 rushing yards and one score. … Devon Linzenmeyer had 119 yards rushing and two touchdowns, Brett Kasper threw three touchdown and UW-Oshkosh’s defense held UW-Eau Claire to 181 total yards in a 38-0 shutout. It was later announced that UW-EC coach Todd Glaser’s contract would not be renewed. The university immediately began a national search for his replacement. … MacMurray quarterback Coy Dorothy threw seven touchdown passes in a 79-7 victory over Maranatha Baptist. Dorothy completed 20-of-30 attempts, and back-up Tommy Cummins completed all six of his attempts for 55 yards and one touchdown. … Claremont-Mudd-Scripps retained the Sixth Street trophy for a third straight year, topping rival Pomona-Pitzer, 20-17. … Wartburg’s defense scored three touchdowns in a 49-34 win at Loras. On offense, Brandon Domeyer and Jake Haberman combined to rush for 216 yards for the Knights. … Sam Sura racked up 181 yards and four touchdowns on 20 carries in St. John’s 49-7 win over St. Olaf. … Despite a broken finger in his throwing hand, Ian Kolste completed 21-of-27 passes for 341 yards and four touchdowns to lift Whitworth to a 47-19 win over Lewis and Clark. … Alex Arellano caught 18 passes, amassing 223 yards and two touchdowns to pace La Verne’s offense. Arellano’s big day led La Verne to a 38-21 win over Cal Lutheran. … Jordan Ratliffe gained 217 yards and two touchdowns on the ground while Chris Nelson threw four touchdown passes in UW-Whitewater’s 63-14 win over UW-Stout. … Sam Lahr ran for 112 yards and scored three times while Josh Rekers passed for 301 yards and two touchdowns in Coe’s 52-14 win over Buena Vista. … The George Fox defense intercepted four passes, recovered a fumble and logged three quarterback sacks in a 21-14 triumph over Willamette. … Jeremiah McKibbins rushed for 117 yards and three touchdowns, propelling Chapman to a 63-15 win over Whittier. … Tom Kelly threw more touchdown passes than incompletions in UW-Platteville’s 52-7 win against UW-La Crosse. Kelly finished the game 22-of-25 for 284 yards and four touchdowns. … Simpson got 211 rushing yards and three scores from Jordan Beem to beat Luther, 42-28. … Zach Schwalbach registered 11 tackles and forced a fumble, helping Hamline top Carleton, 19-7. … Brennan Schon caught six passes for 253 yards while Peter Bell hauled in 13 receptions for 74 yards. … The receiving duo combined to catch four of Hans Fortune’s five touchdown passes as Puget Sound defeated Pacific, 38-20. … Colin Spencer returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown, sparking Redlands to a 41-14 win over Occidental. … UW-Stevens Point recorded its first shutout in more than seven years when the Pointers blanked UW-River Falls, 44-0. Kyle Larson threw for 269 yards and four touchdowns in the win.

Rank ‘em

In the final poll of the regular season, nine teams from the West Region were ranked in the Top 25.

Four teams landed in the top-five. Linfield received six first place votes and was ranked No. 2. UW-Oshkosh and St. Thomas remained ranked Nos. 3 and 4, respectively, while UW-Whitewater moved up one spot to No. 5.

St. John’s held steady at No. 10 this week. UW-Platteville finished its season ranked No. 14.

Dubuque climbed two spots to No. 18, one place ahead of IIAC rival Wartburg at No. 19. Whitworth rose three spots to No. 22.

La Verne (4) received votes in this week’s poll.

Josh Smith photo

Josh Smith has covered Division III sports for more than five years. He writes for multiple publications, including D3football.com beginning in 2012. He has won multiple awards for reporting and photography and lives in southern Wisconsin near UW-Whitewater, where he graduated with a degree in print journalism.

2011-12 columns: Jason Galleske
2010: Tim Walsh
2003-09: Adam Johnson
1999-2000: Don Stoner 

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