There were opportunities for Central College to nail down a share of an Iowa Conference title but Wartburg College used a late fourth-quarter touchdown and some fierce defensive pressure to capture at least a title share of its own Saturday, 20-17.
Reese Thompson's 5-yard TD run with 2:41 left in the game was the only scoring of the second half, finishing an 11-play, 85-yard game-winning drive for the No. 13-ranked Knights who are 9-0 overall and 7-0 in league play. Wartburg wins at least a share of its 12th league title and can secure an outright crown with a win at home next Saturday against Simpson College.
Central, which had claimed at least a share of four of the past five league championships, has a bye in the final week and closes the year at 8-2 overall and 6-2 in the conference.
The Dutch had one final shot Saturday. Following Wartburg's go-ahead touchdown, defensive back Jake Petersen blocked the extra point, leaving Central within a field goal. The Dutch drove to the Wartburg 24-yard line in the final minute, but were pushed back to the 30 where the drive stalled. A desperation 47-yard field goal try by Jake Viggers with 41 seconds left was blocked.
"Our guys played hard," coach Jeff McMartin said. "We battled the whole game. Wartburg is a good football team but it is a tough one to lose. We put ourselves in some tough spots and bailed ourselves out of some tough spots. I'm very proud of our football team."
The Dutch found those tough spots early as first-half mistakes were costly. A fumble on Central's opening possession was returned by Wartburg's Matt Tschetter 24 yards to the 7-yard line. Three plays later, Wartburg quarterback Dan Stiefel scrambled 7 yards for a touchdown.
Central quickly answered with a season-long 73-yard TD strike from Nate Snead to Jeremy Snead to make it 7-7 with 9:03 left in the first quarter. Then Viggers added a 36-yard field goal for the lead with 7:30 remaining in the period.
But Central dug another hole early in the second quarter, as a punt was blocked by Wartburg's Garrett McGrane and returned by David Brooks to the Central 3-yard line. Thompson ran it from there and fumbled near the goal line. The ball was recovered by Central in the end zone, but officials ruled the ball had crossed the plane of the goal line.
Defensive back Cody Baethke gave Central a late first-half opportunity with an interception which he returned 15 yards to the Central 40. Central drove 60 yards in eight plays with running back Kyle Wood scoring from the 3-yard line with 38 seconds left. It was Central up 17-14 at intermission, but the Dutch were scoreless the rest of the way.
Central's defense kept the Dutch on top most of the second half, stopping Wartburg on its first four possessions. After three quarters, Central had limited the high-powered Wartburg offense to 150 yards while gaining 246. But the Knights launched their game-winning march with 8:39 left. It was Wartburg's only scoring drive of longer than 7 yards.
"The defense played great," McMartin said. "They gave us the chance to win today, they really did, with the turnovers they got and the stops drive after drive. It was special teams and the offense that put us in a tough spot defensively a couple of times. Had those things not occurred we could have been looking at a big game."
But McMartin had nothing but praise for his team's effort. The Dutch outgained Wartburg, 275-247 yards. Nate Snead rushed for 86 yards on 22 carries, despite suffering four sacks. Snead completed 10 of 30 passes for 147 yards. He became the first Central quarterback in at least 50 years to finish the year as the team's rushing leader, gaining 669 yards on 141 carries. Snead completed 96 of 179 passes for 1,503 yards for the year with seven interceptions and 12 touchdowns.
Thompson rushed for 86 yards for Wartburg. Quarterback Dan Stiefel completed 13 of 27 passes for 129 yards with two interceptions. He was sacked twice.
Central free safety Ryan Schmidt had 11 tackles for the Dutch while linebacker Greg Best made eight stops, linebacker Ryan Steinkamp had seven and linebacker Cole Henderson had six. Defensive end Shane Wong had five tackles, including 2.5 for loss and a sack.
The game marked the final Central appearance for 28 seniors. The Dutch have compiled a 36-8 record over the past four years, including an 18-3 mark the past two seasons.
"They leave a great legacy," McMartin said. "They have done a great job these last four years. They have been a part of a couple of championships and an undefeated season or two. I am very, very proud of them. They are winners and they have worked very hard and developed as brothers. They have great love for this program and this program has great love for them. My heart breaks for them today, but if we can look back on their body of work, I think everyone associated with this program and the seniors themselves can feel really good about where they have gone."