Mustangs bow out in semifinals
Morningside’s NAIA National Championship aspirations were denied by Saint Francis for the second year in a row when the No. 1-ranked Cougars defeated No. 3 Morningside 43-36 in Saturday’s NAIA Football Championship Series Semifinal in Fort Wayne, Ind.
The Mustangs suffered their only loss of the season to close the books on a banner 13-1 campaign. Reigning NAIA National Champion Saint Francis will take a 13-0 record into the NAIA National Championship Game against No. 2 Reinhardt, a 37-34 double overtime winner against No. 5 Southern Oregon, on Saturday, Dec. 16, in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Saint Francis also foiled the Mustangs’ national title hopes last season when it rallied from a 20-0 deficit to edge the Mustangs 42-35 in last year’s quarterfinals in Fort Wayne and eliminated the Mustangs in the 2004 first round and the 2005 semifinals. All four of the meetings were played in Fort Wayne.
Morningside made a gallant comeback effort after it fell behind 19-3 after one quarter of play in this year’s semifinal. The Mustangs rallied all the way back to take a 28-25 lead with 10:35 left in the game when Trent Solsma completed a 15-yard touchdown pass to Sam Akins and then connected with Connor Niles on a two-point conversion pass.
The Mustangs’ lead was short lived, however, when old nemesis Justin Green broke loose for a 61-yard touchdown run to put the Cougars back in front 31-28 with 9:27 left in the game. Green, who rushed for 296 yards against the Mustangs’ in last year’s quarterfinals, rushed for 234 yards and three touchdowns in 33 attempts in this season’s rematch.
Morningside came right back after the Cougars’ go-ahead score and marched to a first-and-goal on the Saint Francis one-yard line when Solsma and Addison Ross hooked up on a 23-yard pass completion. The drive stalled at the Cougars’ two-yard line and the guests came away empty when Eric Hemmelgarn blocked the Mustangs’ attempt at a game-tying 19-yard field goal attempt.
Saint Francis drove 80 yards in eight plays to increase its lead to 37-28 on a 19-yard touchdown run by Green with 1:27 left and the Cougars expanded their lead to 43-28 two plays later when Stan Jackson intercepted a pass and returned the theft 38 yards for a touchdown with 59 seconds left.
The Mustangs weren’t finished, though, when they drove 65 yards in 44 seconds to close within 43-28 on a 30-yard touchdown pass from Solsma to Chad Berg and a two-point conversion pass from Solsma to Niles.
Morningside’s final comeback hopes were dashed when the Cougars recovered the Mustangs’ onside kickoff at the Saint Francis 48-yard line.
Saint Francis finished with a slight 488 to 479-yard advantage in total offense. The Cougars rushed for 221 yards and passed for 267 yards, while Morningside had 73 yards rushing and a whopping 406 yards through the air. The Cougars were able to shut down the Mustangs’ Bubba Jenkins, the nation’s leading rusher who entered the game with a streak of 12 consecutive games of 100 yards rushing or more, by holding him to 73 yards in 24 attempts for an average of 3.0 yards per carry.
Solsma passed for 406 yards and three touchdowns to finish the season with a school-record 55 touchdown passes. Niles was Solsma’s favorite target with seven catches for 97 yards, while Ross, Tanner Ver Steeg and Berg all caught five passes for 90, 75 and 55 yards, respectively. Niles finished the campaign with a school-record 96 pass receptions.
Aside from Green’s 233 yards rushing, the Cougars received major offensive contributions from Ferrer, who passed for 267 yards and three touchdowns, and Sean Boswell, who caught seven passes for 133 yards and two touchdowns.
Xavier Spann topped the Mustangs’ tackle chart with nine tackles, including seven solo stops, and a pair of pass breakups. Chase Reis, Joel Katzer and Logan Rozeboom all had quarterback sacks.
Lee Stewart III and Piercen Harnish led the Cougars with 13 and 11 tackles, respectively. Saint Francis was unable to sack Solsma, but put constant pressure on him with eight quarterback hurries.
Morningside forced Saint Francis into a three-and-out on its first offensive possession of the game, but the Cougars scored touchdowns on each of their next three possessions on Ferrer touchdown passes of 23 yards to Zach Genger and 16 yards to Boswell and a seven-yard touchdown run by Green to open a 19-3 lead.
Morningside, which scored its first points on a 33-yard field goal by Jared Amundson with 3:00 left in the first quarter, closed within 19-17 on a 24-yard touchdown pass from Solsma to Ross with 4:27 left in the second quarter to close within 19-10 at the intermission.
The Mustangs crept within 19-17 on a one-yard touchdown run by Jenkins with 11:28 left in the third quarter.
Saint Francis answered with a four-yard touchdown pass from Ferrer to Boswell to go up 25-17 with 7:26 left in the third quarter. Morningside closed within 25-20 on a 39-yard field goal by Amundson with 4:22 left in the quarter and then took its only lead of the game, 28-25, on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Solsma to Akins followed by a two-point conversion pass from Solsma to Niles.