COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. — Amid all the big plays the St. John's defense inflicted en route to its fourth consecutive MIAC championship on Saturday — the school-record five interceptions and the pick-six touchdown and the pair of sacks and the stuff job they did on Bethel's running game — the most decisive hit of the day was one ruled illegal by referees.
Wait, that's not as unscrupulous as it sounds.
Defensive lineman Michael Wozniak, the most decorated Johnnie defender in at least five years, knocked Bethel quarterback Jaran Roste to the Clemens Stadium turf, and ultimately out of the game with a shoulder injury, in the second quarter on a play that drew a roughing-the-passer penalty. Without their senior leader, Bethel went scoreless over the game's final 44 minutes, and St. John's romped to a 28-10 championship-game victory over the only team to have beaten it all season.
Fifth-ranked St. John's (9-1) clinched its eighth consecutive appearance in the NCAA Division III tournament, and probably a home game next Saturday, with the victory. Bethel, now 8-2 and ranked ninth, also hopes to be invited, which would be its third tournament appearance in the last four, when the NCAA reveals the pairings for the 32-team tournament at 4 p.m. Sunday.
And Roste? "I'm going to prepare to play next week," the Alexandria High grad said. "I'm optimistic we'll get invited, and I want to play."
When he couldn't after Wozniak's hit, the tenor of Saturday's rematch changed. St. John's led, 21-10, but Roste had already racked up 173 yards, including a 68-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Micah Niewald.
"Our defense kind of smelled blood in the water once [Roste] went out. I could sense that our defense really picked it up," Johnnies coach Gary Fasching said. "Those guys played so well. To give up 10 points to a Bethel team? I mean, that's tremendous."
It is, considering the Royals came in as the top-scoring team in the MIAC, having scored 28 or more points in eight of their first nine games, including a 28-24 win over the Johnnies in September. But Bethel, which put together scoring drives of 58 and 82 yards in its first three possessions, never had one that long again.
That Roste was sidelined by a play flagged as illegal was unfortunate, both teams said. "That was a little irritating," acknowledged Royals coach Steve Johnson, who has lost to St. John's in both of the MIAC conference's new title game.
But neither side saw the play as unethical, either — including Roste.
The quarterback sprained the AC joint in his left shoulder during last week's victory over Augsburg, and when Wozniak reached him in the pocket, "he kind of picked me up and drove me into the ground directly on that same shoulder," Roste said. "He's a heck of a player and when he hits you, you feel it. I don't put that on him; it's being a competitor in a game. It's a football play."
"Guys get hit all the time," Johnson said. "I wouldn't say it was cheap. I don't feel like that's why we lost."
Probably not. St. John's quarterback Aaron Syverson had something to do with it, too, throwing for 323 yards and two touchdowns. So did tight end Alex Larson, who caught 13 passes, one of them a 2-yard touchdown at the left pylon in the third quarter that put the game away. So did Nick VanErp, an underrated receiver who racked up 10 catches, 147 yards, and the Johnnies' second score. Senior running back Henry Trost took his only carry of the day into the end zone from 13 yards out, too.
And then there was Cooper Yaggie, the sophomore linebacker who picked off two Royals passes, one of them off Roste for a touchdown, one of them off backup quarterback George Bolt to snuff Bethel's final, desperate drive. The 61-yard pick-and-go was particularly sweet, Yaggie said, because "we had prepared for that play all week. I was sitting on that slant."
With blockers in front of him, Yaggie wasn't particularly threatened as he raced into the end zone.
"That's an awesome feeling. I didn't see anyone ahead of me," he said. "It's a great win. We worked all year to be champions, and we did it."