As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Chapman University linebacker Dillon Keefe exchanged handshakes, hugs, helmet taps — and, though the situation didn’t seem to warrant it — a few smiles and laughs with teammates on his sideline.
An undefeated season that included the first NCAA playoff victory in school history came to a crashing halt on Saturday when the Panthers were bounced unceremoniously from the Division III playoffs in a 55-26 loss to Saint John’s of Minnesota before 1,724 in Wilson Field.
But that couldn’t put a damper on a season in which Chapman won its first 10 games, a conference title and a 68-65 triple overtime thriller over Linfield in the first round of the playoffs.
“You can never not celebrate your accomplishments — otherwise, you just focus on the losses,” said Keefe, a junior from Orange El Modena High School. “Yeah, this is a bummer that we lost, but we just have to keep in perspective. We did a lot this year, and we should give ourselves a pat on the back for that.”
The Johnnies, who won four national titles under legendary coach John Gagliardi, advanced to the national quarterfinals against Wheaton (Ill.) College behind senior quarterback Jackson Erdmann, who overcame a rocky start to complete 24 of 41 passes for 458 yards and five touchdowns.
T.J. Hodge caught nine passes for 164 yards and two scores, Ravi Alston, a former Vista Murrieta High standout, caught seven passes for 104 yards and a score, and running back Henry Trost had 154 all-purpose yards and three scores.
The Johnnies’ first three possessions of the game ended with a lost fumble, an interception and a blocked field-goal attempt, and Chapman trailed 7-6 with 6 ½ minutes left in the first half.
Erdmann threw scoring passes to Jake Kemper (18 yards) and Hodge (22 yards) in the final 3 ½ minutes of the first half, and Trost capped a seven-play, 78-yard drive with a five-yard scoring run for a 28-6 lead early in the third quarter.
Chapman pulled to within 28-13 on Jonston MacIntyre’s 29-yard touchdown pass to Spencer Corona. Chapman rushed seven defenders on the next play. Erdmann beat the blitz by throwing a short screen pass to Trost, who raced 70 yards for a touchdown and a 34-13 lead.
“We knew they like to blitz a lot, especially when we go empty [formation] and five wide,” Erdmann said. “They were showing blitz. Perfect. [Trost] came hot. I dumped it. Easy money.”
The Panthers lost a fumble on a bad snap on their next possession — their third botched center-to-quarterback exchange of the game. Saint John’s recovered and sealed the win on Erdmann’s 18-yard scoring pass to Hodge for a 41-13 lead with 1:57 left in the third.