By Kurt Ritzman
Assistant Sports Editor
Central DeWitt’s offensive line felt it had something to prove Monday in a Class 3A second-round football playoff game against Marion.
“The coach from Marion — a highly esteemed coach — he said something about how our line could not handle their line,” Central DeWitt senior center Cameron Donovan said. “We took that to heart right away. We’re little, we’re scrappy and we’re not going to let anyone run over us.”
It was the Sabers (8-3) — behind that little, scrappy offensive line — who ran over Marion to the tune of 363 yards and a 28-13 victory. With their second win in 11 days over Marion, tied for No. 10 in the final AP state rankings, following a playoff-opening win over No. 6 Manchester West Delaware, Central DeWitt earns a game against top-ranked Decorah in the quarterfinals Friday.
“There’s a lot of big talk around them being the No. 1 team and everything,” Donovan said. “We knocked off West Delaware and knocked off Marion twice. The rankings don’t mean much to us.”
What did mean a lot to them was continuing their postseason run.
“This win is huge, going there and taking down a top-10 team in Marion,” senior Chris Keitel said. “Coming into the game, we knew they were going to be physical like the first time we played them. We gameplanned correctly and stuck it to them.”
In the Week 9 meeting, the Sabers took advantage of an early Marion fumble to go ahead less than a minute into the game. This time, things started differently.
Marion (8-3) scored on the game’s opening possession on a 7-yard run by Trev Biery after taking more than six minutes off the clock.
“We didn’t have the ball yet; that’s what I was thinking to myself,” Central DeWitt senior quarterback Mitch Green said.
“We had to come from behind when they scored that touchdown, but our kids responded,” Sabers coach Mike Miller said. “They’ve overcome adversity. That was just one more piece of evidence that proves to me the type of character our ballclub possesses.”
It took only 17 seconds for the Sabers to even the score. Green kept the ball on the first offensive play and ran for a 76-yard touchdown.
“Coming out and executing that first play perfectly, that was right in the script,” Green said.
After stopping Marion on its next drive, the Sabers went on a sustained drive. Central DeWitt covered 89 yards in 10 plays — keyed by runs of 19 and 20 yards by Jake Feldpausch — before Austin Lechtenberg punched the ball in from 5 yards out to give the Sabers a lead they would not relinquish.
“Not only did we come out hot out of the gates in the first quarter, but I was pleased how our kids maintained that for four quarters,” Miller said.
A little more than two minutes later. Green showed the Sabers’ quick-strike ability again. He scored on a 45-yard run, giving Central DeWitt its second one-play touchdown drive of the first half.
“On the first read, a kid came down on Keitel — our beast fullback,” Green said, adding that both touchdowns were essentially the same play. “So I pulled and the linebacker shot out on the pitch key. It was open. It was there for me.”
Marion added a second touchdown to cut the deficit to 21-13 at halftime.
Early in the second half, Central DeWitt’s offense struggled but the defense picked up the slack. After the Sabers punted on their first possession, Mitch Kirby intercepted a pass by Marion quarterback Trevor Hardman.
Then Central DeWitt turned the ball over on downs and Marion started to drive.
The Indians covered 44 yards on 10 plays to eat up the final 4:37 of the third quarter. Marion faced third-and-14 from Central DeWitt’s 23 when the fourth quarter started and was in position to tie the game.
Biery took a handoff and ran up the middle. He gained 2 yards before fumbling, and Donovan recovered the loose ball for the Sabers.
“Obviously, the momentum change was huge,” Donovan said. “I felt like their crowd was getting pumped up. We were kind of softening down. Against West Delaware, there were a few times where the coaches said we went down and our heads started hanging. We kind of start stumbling when that happens. Recovering the fumble, words can’t even describe how much it meant in that ballgame.”
The Sabers were forced to punt again after a five-minute drive, giving the Indians another opportunity for a game-tying score. Quinn Cannoy took a handoff on a reverse for Marion, fumbled and Donovan recovered it.
“Ball security is huge, and we spoke about that with our kids,” Miller said. “When you’re playing in an environment like this, especially playing option football, it’s important to secure the football. Fortunately, our defense was able to get some turnovers and position us in pretty good field position.”
Central DeWitt’s defense forced three turnovers and held Marion to 62 yards in the second half.
“We had to take that blow at the start and keep moving forward,” Donovan said. “I think it was a good job by our defense to recover like that.”
On the sideline, Green was telling the offense it needed to put a stamp on the game. Getting the ball at its own 47 with less than five minutes left seemed to be a good time to do it.
“We had to get a touchdown to end the game,” Green said. “We were only up eight and there was about four minutes left. We knew that touchdown was needed, and we knew we could get it. We just had to stop our stupid penalties and execute.”
The Sabers faced third-and-1 at Marion’s 44 and turned to a play that had been working all game.
“Birdman (Green) was like, ‘We’ve got to give the ball to Keitel. He’s been picking up positive yards all night,’ ” Keitel said. He didn’t disappoint, picking up 5 yards and a Central DeWitt first down.
Keitel, who finished with 107 yards, had 14 carries in the second half that went for gains of 6 yards or fewer, many following the right side of the line and plowing into the defense. Five of those carries went for first downs, including one on fourth-and-2.
“That’s the role of the fullback in the triple option; you’ve got to be down in the grits with all the linemen,” Keitel said. “I just put my shoulders down and run as hard as I can to get as many yards as I can every time. I enjoy it. It’s fun when you’re running through big guys like that at Marion.”
One play later, Lechtenberg rushed off the right side after a play-action fake for a 37-yard touchdown.
“You put the ball in a playmaker’s hands and good things happen,” Miller said.
“I think that was the dagger to them,” Keitel said. “Well, I was laying on the ground because I got absolutely destroyed by the three-technique. As I’m standing up and seeing Austin run into the end zone, I was like, ‘This is it. We’ve got this. We won.’ I know I didn’t get the ball and I got killed, but it was a great feeling seeing him walk into the end zone.”
The success of the read-option offense didn’t happen overnight for the Sabers, but they showed clearly that it has happened for them.
“Coach Miller was teaching me all summer to make the reads,” Green said. “He was drilling it into my head. It comes down to execution. I’ve got to put that on my coaches for making me practice that every day. It gets instinctual.”
To earn a berth in the semifinals, Central DeWitt may need to pass its toughest test — 11-0 Decorah.
“There’s things we still want to accomplish,” Miller said. “We need to refocus ourselves. Obviously, there’s a quick turnaround going into Friday. We’ve got to get back at it.”
He said there wasn’t anything to change, just a few things to clean up.
“It’s the things you do day in, day out,” Miller said. “We don’t stray from the recipe we’ve used thus far. We’ve talked to our kids since Week 1 about continually improving and growing as a football team. These kids have bought that. Our theme this year has been ‘Trust the process.’ These kids have believed that. We came out of the gates 0-2 knowing that we played some quality football teams early on. I think those games at the beginning of the season have prepared us to do the things we’re doing now.”
The Sabers are pleased with what they’ve done so far, but they’re not ready for their season to end.
“It’s amazing to make it to the quarterfinals,” Green said. “But it’s not going to stop there.”
CENTRAL DEWITT 28, MARION 13
Central DeWitt 7 14 0 7 — 28
Marion 7 6 0 0 — 13
M — Trev Biery 7 run (Dalton Ott kick), 5:38
CD — Mitch Green 76 run (Keegan Lass kick), 5:21
CD — Austin Lechtenberg 5 run (Lass kick), 11:07
CD — Green 45 run (Lass kick), 8:46
M — Nick Connolly 14 pass from Trevor Hardman (kick failed), 4:58
CD — Lechtenberg 34 run (Lass kick), 2:51
RUSHING — Central DeWitt (46-363), Mitch Green 8-153, Chris Keitel 23-107, Jake Feldpausch 10-65, Austin Lechtenberg 4-42; Marion (37-119), Trev Biery 14-77, Tyler Gunderson 8-47, Ethan Herren 4-18, Colton Mowry 2-minus-2, Quinn Cannoy 1-minus-2, Trevor Hardman 8-minus-19.
PASSING — Central DeWitt, Green 3-5-0-25; Marion, Hardman 6-13-1-66.
RECEIVING — Central DeWitt, Lechtenberg 2-22, Mitch Kirby 1-3; Marion, Gunderson 3-32, Nick Connolly 1-14, Cannoy 1-11, Herren 1-9.