Concordia pushes No. 1 Northwestern to the wire in shootout defeat

By Jacob Knabel on Sep. 2, 2023 in Football

SEWARD, Neb. – It goes down in the loss column, but the 2023 Concordia University Football team gave top-ranked defending national champion Northwestern all it could handle in the season opener on Saturday (Sept. 2). In a good old-fashioned shootout, eight second half possessions in a row resulted in touchdowns as the teams traded blows. Ultimately, the firepower of Jalyn Gramstad and the Red Raiders won out, 48-35, on a stifling hot day inside Bulldog Stadium.

Head Coach Patrick Daberkow’s squad fell short of an upset that would have sent shockwaves across the NAIA football landscape, but it showed it has the makings to far exceed last season’s 4-6 record.

“I think we have a team that believes,” Daberkow said. “Our guys have put a lot of work in and you’d like to see us come away with a better outcome, but we’ve got a lot of season left. We got 90 percent of the regular season left. Let’s do the next right thing, no finger pointing and let’s not make the same mistake twice. Let’s get back to the drawing board and go beat Jamestown.”

The ’22 Bulldogs broke the program record for average total offensive yardage per game, but that record will likely be put in jeopardy by the ’23 Bulldogs. Quarterback DJ McGarvie operated an offense that churned out 529 total yards up against the defending national champions. Concordia hung with Northwestern thanks to second-half touchdown drives that covered 33, 58, 72 and 75 yards, respectively. McGarvie finished with 413 passing yards and fired two touchdown strikes to Austin Jablonski and one to Luke Lang.

Afterwards, Northwestern Head Coach Matt McCarty gave credit to the Bulldog staff for its offensive game plan. Not only did McGarvie eclipse 400 passing yards for the second time in his career, two Bulldog receivers surpassed 100 yards, Adam Van Cleave (11 catches for 140 yards) and Jablonski (nine catches for 122 yards), and Devin Zeigler went past 100 yards on the ground. Zeigler and running back mate Mark Arp both found the end zone once on Saturday.

The sequence that made a possible upset feel real occurred immediately after halftime. Returning First Team All-GPAC linebacker Michael Grindey picked off a Gramstad pass at the Red Raider 33. On the ensuing play, McGarvie hit an uncovered Jablonski for a walk-in 33-yard touchdown. The deficit was cut to 21-14 at that moment. The fireworks were just getting started. Concordia just might have an offense to compete with anyone in the country.

“It’s pretty close,” McGarvie said when asked about how the performance aligned with offensive expectations. “Obviously we need to work on some things here and there, but we’re excited about what we did today. We’re excited about how we moved the ball against them.” Added McGarvie of the back-and-forth offensive explosiveness, “It was very fun. It was a very competitive game. We knew we were going to be in a dogfight. So did they.”

Other than the Grindey pick, the Bulldog defense failed to contain Northwestern’s offense over the final 30 minutes. Konner McQuillan ran wild for 252 yards and two touchdowns while Gramstad added 227 passing yards, 91 rushing yards and five total touchdowns. Star receiver Michael Storey reeled in 11 passes for 159 yards and three scores. The back breaker came with 3:49 remaining in the game when Gramstad plunged over the goal line from two yards out to complete an 80-yard drive.

From an overall perspective, it was hard not to be encouraged by how Concordia made this a four-quarter battle while faced with the NAIA’s preseason No. 1. Said Daberkow of the quick start after halftime, “I thought it was a good response to being down two touchdowns to the No. 1 team in the country. We get the interception and punch it in on the very next play. Coach (Greg) Nelson did a great job – and Coach (Grady) Koch – with the play calling. I was really excited about some of the progress we’ve made there. It’s disappointing that we didn’t kick it in a little earlier.”

Grindey, Isiaha Conner and CJ Dyhrkopp led the Bulldogs with nine tackles apiece on a day when Concordia was constantly chasing after explosive plays. Concordia got one additional turnover when Logan Meyer fumbled near the goal line and the ball was recovered in the end zone by defensive end Kyle Sterup. The offensive-oriented affair made for a light day for the punters, who combined to punt six times on the afternoon. New Concordia kicker Peyton Atwood made all five of his PAT tries.

This was the 17th career start at quarterback for McGarvie, who is in the process of rewriting the school’s passing records. By day’s end, he reached 40 career touchdown tosses (fourth most in program history) and also moved up to No. 4 on the program’s all-time passing yards list with 4,450 yards. He leapfrogged Kurt Earl (4,158). He has plenty of weapons at his disposal with the return of Jablonski, Lang and Carsen Arline and with the addition of the transfer Van Cleave.

The longest road trip of the 2023 season is up next. The Bulldogs will be headed to Jamestown, N.D., for a 1 p.m. CT kickoff next Saturday (Sept. 9). The Jimmies have begun this season at 0-2 with losses to Valley City State University (N.D.) and Midland. Since Jamestown joined the GPAC beginning with the 2018 season, Concordia has won four of the five series meetings.