Northfield, Minn. -- Carleton College had four takeaways and offensive lineman Matt Topeff (Sr./Andover, Minn./Blaine) threw a 53-yard touchdown pass to Matt Frank (So./Caledonia, Minn. ) midway through the fourth quarter as the Knights rallied past nationally-ranked and previously unbeaten Bethel University, 17-14, for the Knights' biggest upset win in 20 years.
It marked Carleton's biggest upset since the Knights beat regional No. 1 and national No. 5 St. Thomas on October 25, 1986, a victory that put the Knights on the proverbial MIAC map. The Royals were ranked 31st in the latest Football Gazette Division III poll following their victory last week over Concordia-Moorhead, and were also receiving votes in the D3Football.com top 25 poll. The Royals were picked to finish fourth in the MIAC coaches' preseason poll while the Knights were slotted ninth.
The Knights took the opening kickoff and marched 50 yards before settling for a Tim Kane (So./Hopkins, Minn.) 37-yard field goal. The Royals took their first lead of the day with a 10-play, 62-yard drive, ending in Ben Wetzell's 1-yard plunge, with 2:49 left in the first.
Neither team sustained a long offensive drive for the rest of the half. The Knights, though, were able to take advantage of a dropped snap on a punt attempt deep in Bethel territory, as R.J. Jackson (Jr./Roseville, Minn./DeLaSalle) took an option pitch on fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line to put the Knights ahead, 10-7 at the break.
The defensive domination continued into the second half. Bethel, which had the field-position advantage the entire second half, finally took the lead with 3:31 minutes left in the third as Wetzell hit John Shirkey from 10 yards out, giving the Royals a 14-10 advantage heading into the final quarter.
Carleton had one more trick up its sleeve. After taking over at their own 35-yard line, the Knights moved out to the 47. On second down, Topeff took a lateral from Darren Caspers (Sr./Bemidji, Minn.) and found Frank all alone down field. Frank gathered the pass in and outraced the Bethel defense to put the Knights ahead, 17-14, with 6:28 remaning.
The Royals had two more chances, driving inside the Carleton 30-yard line both times. A Bethel fumble after a pass completion at the Knights' 24 was recovered by Adam Rossow (Sr./Byron, Minn./Le Sueur-Henderson). The Royals forced a three-and-out and Bethel pushed to the Carleton 24-yard line, aided by a Knight personal-foul penalty. On third down Mike Kootsikas (Sr./Rosemount, Minn.) made an amazing play, breaking up Wetzell's pass to Kyle Lee, and on fourth down Kaizen Yang (Jr./Northfield, Minn.) sacked Wetzell, sealing the win for the Knights.
The Royals outgained the Knights, 233-163, but the Knights won the battle of turnovers, having just one interception while the Royals lost three fumbles and had one interception by Kootsikas late in the first half. The Knights held Bethel's pre-season All-America running back, Phil Porta, to 36 yards rushing on 19 carries. Porta had averaged more than 140 yards rushing per game in three previous games against the Knights. Carleton won despite converting only 2-of-14 third downs and allowing seven Bethel sacks. Bethel also failed to convert on three trips deep into Carleton territory in the second half, as the Royals had the ball for 17:21 in the second half and had an average starting field position of their own 44-yard line.
Jerad Phelps (Jr./Northfield, Minn.) paced Carleton with 13 tackles and Drew Ziller (Byron, Minn./Rochester Lourdes) added 10 stops. James Colbenson (Jr./Rushford, Minn./Rushford-Peterson) and James Clark (Jr./St. Paul, Minn./Highland Park) added seven stops and one sack each as Carleton put together arguably its best defensive performance in at least seven years.
Caspers was under pressure all day but managed to go 14-of-26 passing for 109 yards with only one interception. Jackson tallied 24 yards rushing and Frank paced the Knights with six catches for 85 yards.
Wetzell was 15-of-27 passing for 156 yards and was also Bethel's leading rusher at 59 yards. The Bethel defense was equal to the task, holding on of the nation's highest-scoring offenses down, led by Kirby Carr's eight tackles, six solo and 3.5 for losses and three sacks. Steve Luebke added seven tackles, five solo, and 1.5 for losses.
The Knights, have now started 3-0 for the first time since 1992, when they last won the MIAC title. It was Carleton's first MIAC win over a team other than Hamline, Macalester or Augsburg since the Knights beat St. Olaf and Gustavus in 1996. Carleton takes on Division III's fourth-ranked team and fellow unbeaten St. John's University on Saturday, Sept. 30 at 1 p.m. in Collegeville. It marks SJU's Homecoming and the first meeting between Carleton head coach and former Johnnie standout and graduate Kurt Ramler and his mentor, John Gagliardi. The game can be heard live locally on 95.9 FM KQCL/Power 96 and worldwide here on Knights Online.