HENDERSON — The Nebraska Lutheran Knights came into Thursday's first-round D1 playoff matchup against the Heartland Huskies with a 3-5 record.
They put a scare into the Huskies, and their fans in the stands, but Heartland got key plays late in the fourth quarter — both from junior athlete Connor Boehr — to come out on top 44-36.
“I am not surprised at all,” Heartland head coach Matt Maltsberger said of NL’s ability to hang with the Huskies after the game. “We knew going in, watching film of their last three or four games, they’ve been able to play with anybody and everybody and they beat three playoff teams already. So we knew what we were in store for, and it showed tonight.”
Trailing 22-16 at halftime, the Knights got a 3-yard scoring run from junior quarterback Kyle Richert and took a 30-22 lead after 5-foot-9, 185-pound back Leonardo Lima rumbled 35 yards for another.
Heartland responded with the run game it has relied on all year. Senior running back Austin Stuhr, who entered Thursday 6th in the nation and first in the state — in all classes — in rushing yards with 2,362 according to MaxPreps.com, cut his team’s deficit to 30-28 with a 2-yard plunge into the endzone.
In the fourth quarter, Richert found junior tight end Jayson Mackey-Jackson for an 8-yard touchdown to give the Knights a 36-28 lead.
But Heartland responded, again, with a 10-yard scoring catch from senior Ben Driewer to tie the game at 36 with a little over five minutes left in the game. Earlier in that drive, Heartland was faced with a 4th-and-3. Boehr got the carry and burst through a tight window along the Huskies’ sideline to get the first down and keep the drive alive.
NL was marching down the field on the next possession, but it was Boehr who blew up the mesh-point of a zone read between Lima and Richert and stripped the ball. He got the strip and sprinted 25 yards for the touchdown all in one motion to give his team the 44-36 lead.
The Huskies’ defense held up on the last play of the game. The Knights were faced with a 4th-and-5, but Heartland freshman Jackson Stebbing combined for a sack of Richert with Stuhr to give possession back to the hosts, who later ran the clock out.
“Hats off to them (NL), they played a great game,” Maltsberger said. “But hats off to our boys. It got to the point where it looked a little bleak there for a while. Our kids never gave up, they kept their composure and they just have a championship spirit.”
NL ends its season with a 3-6 record. But the Knights showed head coach Benjy Wells what he had hoped for.
“We felt pretty confident we would be able to move the ball,” Wells said after the game. “Our interior line has been playing really well. We thought we’d have some success, but I don’t know if I expected quite as much success. We had a really good push for a while. But we’ve really grown over the course of the season, especially the second half of the year.”
It was a physical first half from both teams that rely on their rushing game. Heartland led 22-16 at halftime and got scoring runs of 64 yards from junior quarterback Lane Huebert, who kept the ball on an option left, and a 56-yarder on the ground from Stuhr for another. Stuhr could have done more damage in the first half if not for a fumble on the Knights’ 1 yard line on his team’s second drive of the game.
Trailing 22-8 towards the end of the second quarter, NL orchestrated a 10-play, 65-yard scoring drive that took four minutes off the clock and cut its deficit to 22-16. That drive featured a steady dose of Lima — he capped off the series with a 9-yard dive into the endzone.
NL took its opening drive of the game 60 yards for a touchdown. It was an 8-play series and Richert found enough room for a 1-yard scoring run.
Heartland rushed for 444 yards and threw for 41. NL ran for 328 and threw for 80. Lima led the Knights with 33 carries for 229 yards. Richert totaled 50. Stuhr ran for 300 yards on 37 carries while Huebert had 97 on nine touches.
Boehr led Heartland with 19 tackles while Stebbing had 18 and Stuhr 16. For NL, Dillon Malchow led the way with seven stops while Joao Godoy had six.
Nebraska Lutheran (3-6) 8 8 14 6 — 36
Heartland (8-1) 8 14 6 16 — 44