Even though a trio of penalties wiped out touchdowns, the Gustavus Adolphus football team amassed 496 total yards Saturday afternoon and overwhelmed Martin Luther 50-17 in a nonconference season-opening contest at Hollingsworth Field.
Gustavus, which was flagged eight times for 121 yards, fell behind 6-0 early in before reeling off 36 straight points to gain a 36-6 halftime cushion.
“We certainly have some things we have to clean up, but I feel we saw some things that really excited us out there,” Gustavus coach Peter Haugen said.
Senior quarterback Michael Veldman connected on 18 of 27 passing attempts for 353 yards as the Golden Gusties upped their record to 62-37-4 in home openers. Senior wide receiver Brice Panning collected six catches for 118 yards and three touchdowns.
Martin Luther, which led last year’s game with the Gusties before falling 32-20, scored on the game’s first possession when a muffed punt led to an 8-yard touchdown run by Joshuah Kren.
Gusties senior wide receiver Josh Kirk then exploded on an 81-yard kickoff return, and Veldman fired a 15-yard TD pass to Panning on the Gusties’ first snap from scrimmage. Kirk, who grabbed six passes for 119 yards, hauled in the conversion pass to give the Gusties an 8-6 lead.
“We have a lot of respect for them because they’ve certainly got plenty of guys who are playmakers,” Haugen said of the Knights. “Last year was a very competitive game. We knew coming in that we needed to be really sharp. I felt our kids played with tremendous energy all game long, and quite honestly, I think they were sick of practicing.”
Gustavus stretched its lead to 16-6 when Kirk’s nifty leaping catch between a pair of Knight defenders resulted in a 64-yard gain and a first down at the 1-yard line. Veldman then rolled to the right and walked into the end zone on the next play. That all came after sophomore David Peal’s 60-yard touchdown ramble was called back due to a holding penalty.
“Our preparation for this one was much better than last year,” Veldman said. “We were locked in today and took them very seriously since the start of camp.”
Gustavus marched 68 yards in 11 plays to expand the margin to 23-6 on Veldman’s 13-yard TD pass to a slanting Panning, who spun off a tackle at the 8-yard line and lunged over the goal line on the first play of the second quarter.
“With Mike being as good as he is, we felt we could probably go over the top a little bit more so it was really fun,” Panning said. “I have to give our linemen a lot of credit too. There were perfect throws and well executed blocks up front.”
After a back-peddling interception by Kaleb Scott set up Peal’s 2-yard TD run, Veldman lofted a 12-yard scoring strike to Panning to put the Gusties in front 36-6 at the break.
“We knew we had to make a statement early,” said Panning, who matched his total touchdowns of a year ago. “We made a few mistakes, but as a team we went out there and executed. Everybody came up with plays, so now we have to build off it and make those same big plays next week.”
Peal, who led the Gusties with 62 yards on 14 carries and caught two passes for 68 yards, scored on a 6-yard run early in the fourth quarter before Nicholas Negran’s 2-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown put the Gusties ahead 50-12 in the late stages.
“We were definitely more prepared throughout the whole thing,” sophomore linebacker and Mankato West graduate Zach Jakes, said. “We were more focused, and it helped being our home opener. It took us a bit to get back and used to playing live football again. Once we got our footsteps going, we were tackling the dive and getting the job done.”
Jakes led the Gusties with eight tackles while Ezekiel Sundberg was in on seven stops and two players, Jake Boykin and Austin Fest, totaled six tackles each.
Gustavus plays again Saturday at Wisconsin-Stout.
“I am really excited about this team because everyone is working hard and has the same mindset,” Jakes said. “We work hard and we play together. ... I really believe this is going to be a special year.”