NEW ULM - Martin Luther College was fixing for a comeback with a seven-point deficit late after a shoddy first half almost kept it out of the game completely.
But even with momentum completely in the Knights' favor, Austin Stubbs picked off MLC quarterback Luke Rothe inside the red zone with 1:00 on the clock to seal their fate in the 15-8 loss to Northwestern (Minn.) in an Upper Midwest Athletic Conference contest Saturday.
"It's very frustrating," Rothe said. "Our defense had a heck of a game, got a big goal-line stand and just came up big with the onside [kick]. We were moving it, I just sailed it a little high."
Staff photo by Steve Muscatello
Martin Luther College defensive lineman Charles Ungemach sacks Northwestern quarterback Jacob Fletcher during the second quarter Saturday at MLC in New Ulm.
For more photos of this event go to cu.nujournal.com
To get to that point, the Knights (1-2, 1-1 UMAC) stopped the Eagles in a critical goal-line stand that kept them to a 13-8 contest. On that stop, the referees ruled that UNW running back Jacob Fettig was down before crossing the goal line on a third-and-1 run up the middle, forcing the Eagles (1-2, 1-1 UMAC) to call quarterback Jacob Fletcher on a keeper.
"After that third-down play, we knew exactly what they were going to do - the quarterback was going to keep it," said MLC linebacker Nicholas Kressin. "He did it earlier in the first half even on a second-down play. We just put our big boys up front and had some good flow over the top of the line. It was awesome."
On the next series, however, Rothe was flagged for intentional grounding in the back of the end zone on a rush by the Eagles' Cameron Cox, resulting in a safety by rule to put the Eagles ahead 15-8.
Not to be defeated too quickly, the Knights recovered the ensuing onside kick, which brushed up against a player on the receiving team before the recovery.
The Knights got the ball at their own 37-yard line with 2:44 remaining. They drove 23 yards before Stubbs intercepted a pass by Rothe seven plays later to give the Eagles the win.
"It's a play where we put in an empty backfield and the guys run routes and sprint basically to where grass is," said MLC coach Doug Lange. "Luke saw his guy coming open over the middle and the back-side safety came in and took it off.
"It was a good play by them and it was unfortunate because we had an opportunity there, but those things happen and good defense by them."
Halftime adjustments were key to getting the Knights in position to potentially win the game, which would have been their first against the Eagles since 2009.
In the first half, MLC tallied just 80 total yards on offense while allowing 252 yards and 13 points to Northwestern.
"We settled down, I think that was a huge thing," Rothe said. "We settled down and took what they gave us."
The Knights got off to a sluggish start on both sides of the ball. Kressin, who finished with a game-high nine total takles and four tackles for loss, said the main halftime adjustment for the defense was to stress assignment football.
"What it came down to was just manning up," Kressin said. "What happened was the tight end was just sealing our contain player and we just had to man up and have our [outside linebackers] make sure that they kept their responsibility and were staying outside."
After giving up 1,066 total yards and 90 points in the first two games, the MLC defense came up big, holding Northwestern to 15 points off 454 total yards.
"Their effort was tremendous," Lange said of his defense. "There was a lot of bending with very little breaking."
But in the end, MLC could not capitalize on the opportunities it had to pull off the comeback victory.
"Nobody likes to lose, but the effort was great at that point," Lange said. "We had a chance to compete at the end and you think once that safety happens, the only chance you get is to get the onside [kick]. We got that and we moved right down and the ball was at the [40-yard line]. We had a pass go in there and if it doesn't happen, it's too bad."
UNW 7 6 0 2 - 15
MLC 0 0 8 0 - 8
UNW - Jacob Fletcher to Garrett Ostrom 14-yard TD pass (Langmade PAT good), 8:56 remaining
UNW - Zac Cash 6-yard TD run (Langmade PAT no good), 2:20 remaining
MLC - Luke Rothe to Micah Plocher 50-yard TD pass (2-pt. conversion: Rothe rush good), 5:30 remaining
UNW - Cameron Cox rush Luke Rothe on intentional grounding penalty in end zone for safety, 2:46 remaining