When operating at peak levels, the 2023 Concordia University Football team showcased an offense with the ability to light up the scoreboard. The Bulldogs nearly went blow-for-blow in a shootout with top-ranked Northwestern in the season opener and then wrapped up the campaign with a combined 100 points in back-to-back wins over Doane and Mount Marty. In the passing game, quarterback DJ McGarvie and receiver Austin Jablonski frequently torched opponents as both players set new program standards.
When the dust settled, Head Coach Patrick Daberkow’s finished at 5-5 overall and in a three-way tie for fourth place in the GPAC standings. The results haven’t yet matched the program’s lofty aspirations of pushing for an NAIA playoff berth, but Daberkow measures progress and success in ways that go beyond wins and losses.
“I’m excited about the momentum we’ve created and the legacy the seniors have left,” Daberkow said. “As the season ends and you’re able to sit back and reflect a little, I’m really happy about the guys we have in the locker room. We feel like, if we’ve done one thing right, we’ve assembled a group of young men who love football, love each other and are willing to sacrifice with their commitment. We’re excited about where we’re headed.”
Ever since McGarvie’s arrival in 2021, the trajectory of the offense has skyrocketed. The 2023 offense broke the program record for total offense per game (411.3) and averaged more points per outing (30.3) than any Concordia squad has during the GPAC era (2000-present). McGarvie threw for at least 300 yards four times and his unit hit the 30-point mark six times this fall. With fewer than four minutes left in the clash with the defending national champion Red Raiders, the Bulldogs trailed just 41-35, before falling, 48-35. The performance showed Concordia capable of competing with anyone in the NAIA.
Looking back, the Bulldogs had a shot in the final minutes in eight of their 10 games in 2023 and were perhaps a couple of plays away from attaining a 7-3 record. Unfortunately, Concordia dropped a 16-12 home decision to Dakota Wesleyan (Sept. 23) after it failed to punch in the potential game-winning touchdown in the closing minutes and was unable to seal the deal in the second overtime of a 39-37 home loss to Midland (Oct. 28).
While the loss to the Warriors stung as much as any defeat in 2023, the Bulldogs did manage to earn wins over their other in-state rivals while pummeling Hastings, 44-23, and Doane, 55-26. Concordia put a defensive touchdown on the board in both of those victories and in three of the season’s final four games. The defensive scores came via Will Potratz’s scoop and score at Hastings, Deegan Barnes’ 21-yard fumble return for a touchdown versus Doane and CJ Dyhrkopp’s 40-yard interception return for a touchdown at Mount Marty. Potratz and Barnes were part of a youth movement that took place in the secondary throughout the season.
Overall, the defense was a bit leakier (31.9 points per game allowed) than Concordia would like it to be, but the big plays helped make up for some of that. All fall, the Bulldogs were paced on that side of the ball by a defensive line anchored by Kyle Sterup, Devon Polley and Carson Fehlhafer (each of whom earned All-GPAC awards). Sterup’s stellar season included 19 tackles for loss.
Said Daberkow, “Kyle’s got long levers, he’s a great leader, he’s selfless – he’s all those things you want in a leader on your team. Any time your best players are the guys who embody the culture of the locker room you’re trying to build, it’s so helpful. They’re all guys (on the defensive line) who have bought into what we’re building and are pillars of our program. It’s exciting to see. They’re never too cool to work hard. Those guys all got to where they are because of the work they put in. They are setting the tone for the future of the program. We’re continuing to bring in more guys like them. That’s what makes my job so fun.”
At the linebacker spot, Michael Grindey paced the team in tackles for the second-straight year. He wound up with 89 stops and two interceptions in 2023. Grindey routinely served as one of the team’s game day captains along with Jablonski, McGarvie and Sterup.
The Lincoln North Star High School product McGarvie will enter his senior year in 2024 already the owner of the program’s all-time career records for passing yards (6,679) and passing touchdowns (54). He broke one of his own records in 2023 in racking up 2,642 passing yards for the season. Of course, his No. 1 target was the former University of Nebraska walk-on Jablonski, who reeled in 91 receptions for a school record 1,134 yards and eight touchdowns. The team’s second and third leading receivers, respectively, were Carsen Arline (37 catches for 553 yards and four touchdowns) and Luke Lang (22 catches for 274 yards and three touchdowns).
Meanwhile, the ground game rode the capable legs of Devin Zeigler (795 rushing yards) and Mark Arp (466 rushing yards). Zeigler found the end zone 11 times and was named Second Team All-GPAC. Zeigler finished his career with the ninth most rushing yards (1,800) in program history. As Daberkow likes to point out, the Bulldogs could not have achieved such offensive success without the work of the big guys up front. The most frequent starting offensive line featured Cohen Carpenter and Blake Schlegel at the tackles, Christian Schlepp and Tyler Walford at the guards and Jackson Anderson at center. Several others also saw playing time.
“Anytime you can average over 30 points per game, that’s solid,” Daberkow said. “That’s the highest our football program has averaged since 1972. It’s a testament to our offensive line. They make the offense tick. You’re only going to be as good as your offensive line. I truly believe that. We have playmakers too. DJ made great strides this season. Our quarterbacks coach, Greg Nelson, did a fantastic job calling plays, and Coach (Grady) Koch and Coach (Bryce) Simnacher did a phenomenal job of preparing them. I’m happy for the humble confidence that we carried into every game.”
The 2023 season marked the fourth time in Daberkow’s seven seasons as head coach that Concordia has finished at .500 or better. The push to compete with the top of the GPAC continues. The conference remains one of the NAIA’s very best and sent Dordt, Morningside and Northwestern to the playoffs in 2023. Daberkow wants winning to be a byproduct of all the unique characteristics that make Bulldog Football what it is. Though Concordia recognized roughly 20 seniors on senior day, Daberkow feels confident in the returning group and its commitment to elevating the program.
Said Daberkow, “I want so much for our guys to take away from the experience more than just wins and losses. It doesn’t diminish the pursuit of winning. We’re about way more than just the game itself. We’re trying to look into the future. We want to pump out guys who are prepared to be leaders as husbands and fathers and be able to kill it in their places of employment. We understand that all of that stems from service to other people. Joy is found in an identity in Christ. I think our locker room is making strides towards that. I’m excited to push them this offseason so we can attain more goals.”