It all came down to three yards.
After dominating its opponents all year long, the St. Ansgar football team played in a stressful, wild game that went down to the final seconds on Friday in the Class A state semifinal against Grundy Center. Unfortunately for the Saints, the final battle they lost was the one against the clock.
After falling into an early deficit, the Saints battled back in the second half, and scored a 1-yard touchdown run from senior running back Jack Sievert with 4:48 remaining in the game, to pull within two points of Grundy Center at 23-21.
On the next play, St. Ansgar attempted an onside kick, but the Spartans recovered in at the 48 yard line, a big missed opportunity for the Saints.
“I think that decided the game,” junior running back Ryan Cole said. “If they would’ve fumbled, we would’ve gotten the ball back, and I’m pretty confident we could’ve scored.”
After a punt from Grundy Center, the Saints got the ball with 1:09 left in the game. The Saints got a first down on a 21-yard pass to Adam Williams. Three plays later, quarterback Cade Duckert ran the ball on fourth-and-eight. He was pushed out of bounds three yards shy of the marker, to give Grundy Center the ball with just seconds remaining.
After the Spartans kneeled, the sideline swarmed the players on the field, as Grundy Center clinched a spot in next week’s state title game with the 23-21 victory.
“Credit to Grundy Center, I think they outplayed us in all three phases of the game,” St. Ansgar head coach Drew Clevenger said. “They came out ready to go, and I thought we looked a little sluggish on all sides of the ball.”
The Spartans got the scoring started early. Junior Matt Jansen ran the opening kickoff back to the 45-yard line, giving Grundy Center great field position to begin the game.
The Spartans gave the ball to running back Zach Opheim, who repeatedly gashed the St. Ansgar defense for big gains. He ended the drive by running the ball in from the four-yard line for a touchdown. After the Saints blocked the PAT, Grundy Center held a 6-0 lead.
As St. Ansgar has done all season long, the team’s offense leaned on Sievert and Cole to lead the attack.
At the start of the second quarter, the Saints took 7-6 lead on a one-yard touchdown run from Sievert, but the advantage was short-lived.
After a short kick-off from the Saints, Grundy Center had the ball at its own 46 to begin the drive. On the first play, Jansen caught a pass in the backfield and ran the ball 54 yards for a score to give Grundy Center a 13-7 lead.
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On the next drive, a lack of discipline hampered St. Ansgar’s defense. On first and 10 from the 49, Knaack ran out on bounds on a short gain. But a late hit from Logan Hulshizer of St. Ansgar gave the Spartans an extra 15 yards, and a first down at the 32.
A few plays later, Knaack threw a 22-yard pass to Jansen on fourth and 2, and Grundy Center had the ball at the two yard line. On third and one, Knaack ran the ball in for a touchdown, and the Spartans took a 20-7 lead.
Both teams went three-and-out on their next drive, and the half ended with Grundy Center ahead, 20-7.
At the beginning of the second half, the Saints gave the ball to Sievert on every snap of the 17-play drive, which ended when Sievert punched the ball into the end zone for a touchdown.
After the PAT, the score was Grundy Center 20, St. Ansgar 14. The touchdown provided a much-needed energy boost for both the Saints and the red-clad crowd that had make the trek to the UNI-Dome.
"I was a little embarrassed with how we played offensively in the first half," Clevenger said. "I thought we got whupped up front at the first level, and when we get beat at the first level, we're not going to do some good things. We wanted to re-establish our identity.
"The positive part is that we were able to do that. The negative part is that we ran an awful lot of time off the clock."
The two teams battled back and forth until the start of the fourth quarter, when Grundy center kicked a 17-yard field goal to go up 23-14. The Saints scored again with 4:48 remaining in the game on a one-yard touchdown run from Sievert, pulling St. Ansgar to within two points at 23-21.
But the onside kick proved crucial, as the Spartans ate up precious minutes on the clock.
“It’s do or die,” Cole said. “If you stop them, you get the ball back, score and win, you go to the state championship. If you don’t, season is over. Everything is on the line.”
With the loss, St. Ansgar ends its season with an 11-1 record. Grundy Center will play on Thursday in the Class A state title game, against West Hancock.
Sievert finished the game with 176 yards on 39 carries. The Saints finished with 274 yards of total offense, just seven yards shy of the school record for total yards in a season.