For two years, head coach Chris Meidt and the St. Olaf football program languished in mediocrity. After a seven-year stint as offensive coordinator at Bethel University, Meidt was given the chance to run his own program at St. Olaf in 2002. Yet, the initial results were less-than-stellar: The Oles went a combined 9-11 in 2002 and 2003, each time finishing in the bottom half of the MIAC standings.
If the Oles can make the jump to the top of the conference standings in the near future, 2004 may go down as the year that started it all. First-year halfback Jay Higgins' 25-yard touchdown catch in overtime capped a dramatic 45-42 win over Augsburg Friday night at the Metrodome, as the Oles finished their season with a solid 7-3 record.
"For us, seven wins was a big deal in that it had only been done three times in the last 25 years [of the program]," Meidt said.
That Friday's game would become a shootout seemed inevitable (Augsburg and St. Olaf's defenses were ranked sixth and seventh in the conference, respectively, entering the game), but the offensive fireworks got underway early in the first quarter. One play after Matt Dean '06 snagged an interception on the Auggies' first drive of the game, quarterback Jason Wilsey '06 connected with Brandon Joyce '07 on a 24-yard touchdown pass to give St. Olaf the early lead.
The first half was a see-saw battle, with the heavyweight on Augsburg's side being quarterback Marcus LeVesseur. The two-time Division III wrestling national champion (and former University of Minnesota grappler), who is playing football this season for the first time since high school, was nearly unstoppable in the early going. LeVesseur accumulated 342 total yards (including a school record 181 rushing yards) on the day, including three touchdown runs in the first half.
Despite additional touchdown catches by Higgins and Preston St. John '08 in the first half, LeVessuer and the Auggies entered the locker room at the half with a 26-19 lead. To make matters worse, Wilsey, one of the top-rated passers in the MIAC, was injured during the team's last offensive series and would not play the rest of the game.
It was the future of the St. Olaf football program that would mount the second half charge. Four talented first years - quarterback Matt Penz, wide receivers Andrew Schmiesing and St. John, and running back Higgins - were each instrumental in the comeback victory.
Filling in for the injured Wilsey, Penz flashed the form that made him the most prolific passer in the history of Rochester Mayo High School, completing 13 of 18 passes in the second half for 203 yards and one touchdown. Schmiesing also had a career day, catching six balls for 128 yards, including a 55-yard touchdown pass from St. John, who accrued two touchdowns and 147 all-purpose yards himself.
Friday's performance also caps a spectacular season for Higgins, who was pressed into the extensive duty earlier this year after a season-ending injury to Bobby Andrade '07. Higgins had 186 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns Friday, giving him 1,213 total yards on the season.
Yet despite the efforts of this talented group, it appeared all would be for naught. With the game tied at 39, a fumble by Penz with 1:30 remaining in the fourth quarter allowed LeVesseur and the Auggies to take over. However, Augsburg missed a 39-yard field goal as time expired, sending the game into overtime.
College football's overtime system affords each team an opportunity to score from the 25-yard line. Augsburg managed only a field goal during their possession to take a 42-39 lead, setting the stage for Higgins' game-winning touchdown catch. Penz was able to thread the ball through three Auggie defenders on the Oles' first play of overtime to give St. Olaf the dramatic win.
Despite Friday's season-ending victory, Meidt knows that the Oles will have their work cut out for them in 2005.
"This year we snuck up on some teams," Meidt said. "We were picked to finish eighth in the conference [before the season], but that only emphasizes how hard we have to work this offseason. We're not going to sneak up on anybody next year."