COLLEGEVILLE, MInn. – After a wild back-and-forth NCAA Division III first-round playoff contest, it only seemed fitting that on the last play, both the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and St. John's thought they had won.
"I'm very proud of our football team and congratulations to St. John's," said Pioneer Coach Mike Emendorfer. "We didn't agree with all the calls at the end, but it was a hard-fought game."
UW-Platteville, ranked 12th in the D3football.com poll, finished its season 8-3, while ninth-ranked St John's will take a 10-1 record into a second-round game against UW-Oshkosh.
"It was a game much like I thought it would be," said Johnnies' Coach Gary Fasching. "It was a tight game. They are a very good football team."
The Pioneers, just like they had with second-ranked UW-Whitewater and fifth-ranked UW-Oshkosh, stood toe-to-toe with a top 10 team. Saturday's contest featured five lead changes, four in the final 19 minutes, on a field surrounded by more than four inches of snow that fell Friday.
"Since the first game of the season, this team has been aiming for the playoffs," Emendorfer said. "We have set the bar high. We proved without a doubt that we deserved to be here."
UW-Platteville got on the board first, as Josh Mackie's 59-yard interception return set the Pioneers up inside the Johnnies' 10. Foregoing a field-goal attempt on fourth down, the Pioneers went for the end zone, which Tom Kelly found when he scrambled around right end for a three-yard score.
On the ensuing drive, St. John's answered with its own fourth-down touchdown, as Jackson Erdmann completed a 25-yard score to Will Gillach. Alexi Johnson added a 21-yard field goal midway through the second quarter, and the Johnnies took a 10-7 lead at the half.
UW-Platteville quickly tied the score to start the second half, with Sam Herkert's 25-yard field goal knotting the contest at 10. And then the fireworks began.
In a matter of 5:03, the teams scored four times in a wild sequence. Johnson's 35-yard field gave the Johnnies a 13-10 lead. Quinn Buschbacher returned the ensuing kickoff 91 yards for an apparent touchdown, but a penalty late in the run negated the score. Still, the Pioneers took over on the SJU 31, setting up a 12-yard scoring pass from Kelly to Dan Arnold. Kelly broke the school single-season record with his 37th TD pass, and Arnold tied the Pioneer mark by scoring his 16th touchdown of the year. Any celebrating would be short-lived for the Pioneers, as Evan Clark returned the kickoff 82 yards for a Johnnies' touchdown and a 20-17 lead.
UW-Platteville reclaimed the lead at 24-20 after a 74-yard drive was capped by Wyatt Thompson's 7-yard scoring run with 1:07 left in the third quarter.
On the Johnnies' next possession, the Pioneers forced a punt, and the snap sailed way back to the SJU 13, a loss of 32 yards. UW-Platteville capitalized on the short field, and Sean Studer scored from a yard out, making it 31-20 early in the fourth quarter.
The Johnnies narrowed the deficit to 31-26 on a Zach Sundly 19-yard scoring reception from Jackson Erdmann. The two-point conversion attempt failed with 8:10 to play.
Mackie made his second interception with 2:48 remaining, and the Pioneers forced the Johnnies to use their three timeouts. Connor Foley's punt from the 36 just missed being pinned at the one, and the Johnnies took over on their 20 for the last drive with 2:20 to play.
Kelly led the Pioneer offense with 27 completions in 42 attempts for 217 yards. Buschbacher had 11 receptions, and Arnold made 7. Thompson added 66 yards on the ground. Ben Moglievesky totaled 14 tackles, while Marty McGrail had 12. The Pioneers recorded five sacks for losses of 40 yards.
Krueger led St. John's with 73 rushing yards, while Erdmann threw for 235 and two scores.
The Pioneers graduate 23 seniors who were part of 33 victories and the university's first two NCAA III playoff appearances, in 2013 and 2016.
"Though we were disappointed in the end result, I'm very proud to be a Pioneer," Emendorfer said, "and especially proud of the seniors. They provided great memories and great experiences for all or us who love UW-Platteville football."
By Paul Erickson, Director, Communications, 608.342.1194, firstname.lastname@example.org