COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. -- Josh Nelson is saving his best for last.
The senior running back caught three touchdown passes and ran for another, spearheading St. John's 38-10 win over RPI in the NCAA Division III semifinals Saturday.
Nelson, who had 291 receiving yards coming into the game, caught eight passes for 192 yards.
"Every week we come out and, wanting to get better," said
Nelson. "It's my senior year, so I don't have many weeks left to
get better. This week turned out to be one of those weeks that
turned out well for me."
It had to work out for the Johnnies, whose top player, wideout
Blake Elliott, was hampered by a hamstring injury and limited to 87
Defensively, St. John's (13-0) was able to keep RPI (11-2)
quarterback Dan Cole on the run. Operating exclusively from the
shotgun, Cole managed to lead the Engineers on one sustained drive
of 11 plays, capped by a 21-yard scoring pass to Dan Stephens.
"We got pressure every play, and it kind of slowed us down a
little bit," said Cole, held to 237 yards passing after averaging
286 yards per game. "But we still had opportunities to make plays
and we didn't."
The Johnnies gave coach John Gagliardi his 413th career win and advanced to face Mount Union in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl on Dec. 20 in Salem, Va. Three-time defending champion Mount Union routed Bridgewater 66-0 in the other semifinal.
St. John's will be making its first trip to the championship
game since 2000, when it lost 10-7 to Mount Union. The Johnnies,
making their 15th postseason appearance, last won a national title
in 1976 when they beat Towson 31-28.
Mount Union has won six of the last seven Division III
"We got a great task ahead of us, but we're up for the
challenge," said Gagliardi, who became the winningest coach in
college football history this season.
Nelson's first score was an 80-yarder where he caught the ball
on the 50 and outran the Engineers' secondary. His second was a
six-yard screen pass late in the third quarter that put St. John's
ahead for good. In the fourth quarter, Nelson caught a short pass
in a crowd at the 1 yard line and muscled into the end zone.
He added a one-yard touchdown run to cap the scoring on St. John's 22nd straight win at Clemens Stadium.
Before Saturday, the Engineers had won two straight playoff
games, the first postseason football victories in RPI history.
Trailing 7-0, Cole managed to avoid St. John's furious rush,
leading RPI on an 11-play, 66-yard drive that was capped by a
21-yard pass to Dan Stephens. Following a St. John's turnover, one
of three in the game, the Engineers went ahead on a 28-yard field
goal by Matt Verenini.
St. John's also had trouble moving the ball in the first half,
getting into RPI territory only twice following Keating's first
touchdown pass to Nelson. One of those possessions led to Brandon
Keller's 32-yard field goal, which tied the game at 10.