The progress the Central College football team showed in nearly knocking off No. 12 Wis.-Oshkosh Saturday was clear, but so was the disappointment as the Dutch saw a surprising 17-0 halftime lead melt in the steamy September heat at Ron and Joyce Schipper Stadium.
A year ago at Oshkosh, Wis., the Titans roared to a 41-0 halftime lead en route to a 47-28 victory over the Dutch and went on to win 13 straight games before falling in the NCAA Division III semifinals. Wis.-Oshkosh returned eight offensive starters from that juggernaut, but Central stymied the Titans throughout the first half, limiting them to 125 yards and six first downs. The best Wis.-Oshkosh scoring opportunity got as far as the Dutch 3-yard line, before an errant third-down snap and then a blocked field goal try left the Titans scoreless.
But while there was improvement, there were also some too-familiar second half lapses as Wis.-Oshkosh used big plays to foil Central's upset hopes. A 56-yard strike by quarterback Nick Olla on the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter set the tone. Four plays later the Titans were in the end zone. Central gave up a 27-yard pass on the next Wis.-Oshkosh possession that led to a field goal, then a 67-yard Olla touchdown pass that tied the game 17-17 with 11:20 left in the game. And an intercepted Central pass sparked a four-play Wis.-Oshkosh march for the go-ahead score with 8:36 remaining.
"We cannot give up big plays," coach Jeff McMartin said. "We talked about it all off-season and here we are again. That's got to get fixed."
And the breaks that seemed to go Central's way in the first half all tilted towards Wis.-Oshkosh after intermission. Defensive back Jacob Edleman (senior, Mechanicsville, North Cedar HS) weaved his way to the end zone on a dazzling 65-yard fourth-quarter interception return that was called back because of a penalty. All-region kicker Kevin Sheldon (junior, West Des Moines, Valley HS) connected on two field goal tries but strong long-range boots on attempts from 50 and 42 yards sailed just wide. The Dutch committed a pair of costly second-half turnovers. And quarterback Aaron Eiseler (junior, Mesa, Ariz., Red Mountain HS) had to leave the game in the third quarter due to significant heat-related problems as temperatures neared triple digits and the heat index soared even higher.
"There were a lot of things," McMartin said. "We weren't able to generate much on offense. We scored 17 in the first half and got three points in the second half. That is not ideal. We had some opportunities to make some things happen that didn't go our way."
Eiseler completed 18 of 25 passes for 178 yards with one interception and two touchdowns before leaving the game. He returned for a final desperate Central possession with only16 seconds left and tossed an additional interception on the game's final play. In his absence the Dutch called on senior Austin Blom (Phoenix, Ariz., Mountain Pointe HS) and junior Brendon Boerm (Traer, North Tama HS), who was a part-time starter a year ago before moving to receiver. Blom was 5-for-8 for 51 yards with one interception.
"You hate to have (heat and injuries) factor in, but you've got to be a next-man-in kind of team," McMartin said. "Austin Blom was ready to play. We did a couple things with Brendon Boerm in the running game. We were prepared to play other people. Austin took us right down and got us into scoring position. He had a nice drive at the end."
After Wis.-Oshkosh took the lead with 8:36 left, Blom directed an 11-play, 70-yard drive that stalled at the 5-yard line. Sheldon kicked a 21-yard field goal to cut the lead to 24-20 with 3:41 left, but Wis.-Oshkosh was able to control the ball for eight plays. The Dutch couldn't get the ball back until the closing seconds and had to start at their own 12-yard line.
Running back Josh Osborn (junior, Burlington) ran for a game-high 69 yards on 17 carries while De'Andre Currie (junior, Phoenix, Ariz., Mountain Pointe HS) darted for 52 yards on eight attempts.
Blaine Forsythe (junior, Pella) caught a 4-yard pass from Eiseler for Central's first score with 5:19 left in the first quarter and Grant McArdle (senior, Red Oak, Stanton HS) had an 8-yard TD reception at the 11:52 mark of the second quarter. Boerm had a career-high and game-high 10 receptions for 119 yards while McArdle had five catches for 60 yards and Forsythe had five receptions for 32 yards.
Wis.-Oshkosh outgained the Dutch 430 yards to 370, getting 325 passing yards as Olla completed 14 of 25 passes with two interceptions. Central held a 141-105 yard advantage in rushing yards.
Junior linebacker Mitch Schroeder (Lowden, North Cedar HS) topped the tackle charts with a game-high 14 tackles. Defensive back Jacob Tune (junior, Mesa, Ariz., Red Mountain HS) had seven tackles, including 1.5 for loss. Linebacker Keith Rush (senior, Griswold), in his first action since 2011 after missing last year with injury, also had seven stops. Linebacker Mike Young (senior, Country Club Hills, Ill., Hillcrest HS) had six tackles and a fumble recovery. Edleman and defensive back Bryan Mejia (sophomore, Miami, Fla., Coral Gables HS) each had an interception.
While the outcome left the squad disheartened, there's no doubt the big picture glows brighter than it did a year ago.
"We played hard," McMartin said. "We played together and believed in each other. We were able to put last year away. We didn't let that affect how we played this team, this year.
"There's nothing we can do to change this game. This hurts. It's a rough way to start out. But I believe this team is going to keep getting better and a lot of the goals we have set for this football season are still there."
Central takes on another non-conference challenge next Saturday at 6 p.m. with a trip to Augustana College at Rock Island, Ill.