SIOUX CITY, Iowa — They’re both newcomers to a Morningside College football team that has been highly motivated by the disappointment of an overtime loss in last year’s NAIA championship game in Rome, Ga.
Stop and think about it, though, and both Brandon Wegher and Ryan Kasdorf fit right in to all of this as talented athletes with something to prove.
And, Saturday afternoon at Olsen Stadium, Wegher and Kasdorf made up a spectacular 1-2 punch as fifth-ranked Morningside launched its 10th consecutive year of postseason play with a 40-21 victory over No. 10 Rocky Mountain College.
Wegher, the former University of Iowa tailback who sat out the last three seasons, finally had that big game Morningside coach Steve Ryan kept hoping to see, erupting for 277 yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries as the fifth-ranked Mustangs advanced into quarterfinal action next Saturday.
Meanwhile, Ryan’s explosive offense also got a 338-yard passing effort from Kasdorf, the quarterback whose ejection from Morningside’s loss to Northwestern two games ago also got him suspended from a pivotal regular-season finale last Saturday against Doane.
“We wanted to come out here and lay it on the line every play and that’s what we did today,’’ said Wegher, whose 3,238 rushing yards for Bishop Heelan’s Class 3A state champions of 2008 are still an all-time best in Iowa high school football. “We played a great Rocky Mountain team, but we came out and fought hard today.’’
Breaking a 75-yard touchdown run on his sixth carry of the day, Wegher finally delivered that home run speed that had been his trademark as a prep. The play came 18 seconds after Rocky Mountain, spotting Morningside a 16-0 lead, came up with its first of three touchdowns on the day.
Wegher, assigned sophomore eligibility by the NAIA Clearinghouse in the fifth autumn since he left high school, had another seven carries ranging from 11 to 25 yards, netting 182 yards on his eight best attempts. His 277 yards were just seven shy of Jake Peterson’s school-record 284 against now-defunct Dana in 2009.
“Things haven’t been going my way all season long,’’ said Wegher, who has been nursing a tender left knee for several weeks. “That happens in a season that you’re hurt. Things are down, things are up. My knee feels great. There’s just some mornings it’s not so great.’’
On a cold afternoon that also saw him add five carries for the last 28 yards of Morningside’s only second-half touchdown drive, Wegher hiked his season rushing yardage from 745 to 1,022.
“He’s healthy today and man, he made that play (the 75-yarder),’’ Ryan said of Wegher, who hadn’t played football since he broke Iowa’s freshman rushing record in 2009. “The O-line played well. There were some creases and (Wegher) hit ‘em. He broke some tackles and he played well.’’
Kasdorf completed 20 of 32 passes for 338 yards and two scores, returning to the lineup after sitting out a Doane game in which his understudy, Derrick Dison quarterbacked the Mustangs to a 51-13 win. It was a crucial victory that cemented both a playoff berth and also a third outright championship in the Great Plains Athletic Conference.
“(The suspension) just kind of gave me a chance to reflect on my behavior from the Northwestern game,’’ said Kasdorf, who was ejected after two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in a 38-28 loss cost Morningside the No. 1 ranking it had enjoyed since the NAIA’s preseason poll. “I think I grew a lot as a person, just thinking about some of the choices I was making on the field. And I really think coming out today I kind of had a point to prove that I can lead this team. I’m growing up as a person and I’m going to do right from here on out.’’
Senior receiver Kyle Schuck, the GPAC offensive player of the year, hauled in both of Kasdorf’s TD throws, following up Zach Decker’s early field goal with scoring plays of 52 and six yards to make it 16-0 early in the second quarter. The NAIA leader in receiving yards per game, averaging 117 yards through the Mustangs’ 10 regular season starts, Schuck added 162 yards on seven grabs, giving him 1,332 yards on 68 catches this season.
Also, the two touchdown receptions increased Schuck’s school record for career touchdowns to 44 while boosting his season total for TD catches to 20 — one shy of the school mark set by Trae Johnson in 2005.
Even with a 685-yard day, well over the average of 574.2 that is on track to shatter a school record, Morningside’s offense didn’t avoid a bit of criticism from Ryan, whose 12-year record improved to 108-32.
“Forty points is nothing to sneeze at, but we missed some opportunities when we were down there in the red zone,’’ said Ryan, whose team was limited to three touchdowns and two field goals in seven forays inside the Rocky Mountain 20-yard line. “We dropped a couple balls and we had some turnovers. We can’t afford to do that going forward, but the offense did well today.’’
So did the defense, minimizing the damage against one of NAIA football’s top passing teams.
“They’re a great team,’’ said Morningside senior linebacker Aaron Roberg. “Up front, they’re huge. We just got after it. Our D-line played lights out today. They got a great push and we shut down the run game (57 yards on 20 tries). That’s where it all starts.’’
Roberg, who figured in a team-leading eight tackles, was named defensive player of the game while Wegher won the offensive honor.
“They were able to start fast and we were a little bit slow out of the gates,’’ said Rocky Mountain coach Brian Armstrong. “But they’re a darned good football team. I would not be surprised to see them in the national championship game again.’’
Senior quarterback Bryce Baker had a busy day for the Battlin’ Bears, completing 32 of 56 passes for 334 yards. Sophomore wideout Andre McCullouch, ranked third nationally in receiving yards per game, two slots behind Schuck, hauled in eight passes for 113 yards and a 46-yard touchdown that got Rocky Mountain within 23-14 midway through the second quarter.
Morningside answered in just three plays — a 16-yard run by Wegher, a 50-yard pass to Joel McCabe and an 8-yard TD keeper by Kasdorf.
Then, after stalling out at the Rocky Mountain 13, Morningside settled for a second short field goal by Decker to take a 33-14 advantage into halftime.
“We’ve had a good season, but Morningside’s a heck of a football team,’’ said Armstrong, who guided Rocky Mountain to its first playoff appearance since 1999. “They’re a program we kind of aspire to get where they’re at.’’
Rocky Mountain, bowing out at 8-4, had an early win over Southern Oregon erased for inadvertently using an ineligible player — a ruling the Bears are still appealing. Their only other losses were two cliffhangers with Frontier Conference rival and league champion Carroll, a six-time NAIA champion ranked No. 3 and headed to the quarterfinals after a 38-28 win Saturday over No. 13 Georgetown (Ky.).