Morningside edged Northwestern 14-13 in a defensive battle to secure an outright GPAC football championship.
Morningside wrapped up sole possession of the GPAC football championship by the smallest of margins when the Mustangs edged Northwestern 14-13 in a defensive battle in Saturday’s regular season finale at Elwood Olsen Stadium.
The fifth-ranked Mustangs finished with a perfect 8-0 record in the GPAC to win their sixth consecutive league crown by a one-game margin over runner-up Doane (7-1), who the Mustangs throttled 69-7 when they met during the regular season on Oct. 8 in Sioux City. Morningside will take a 9-1 overall record into next week’s opening round of the NAIA Championship Series, where it has advanced to at least the semifinals each of the last four years.
The Mustangs’ title clinching victory against Northwestern came down to a failed two-point conversion attempt by the Red Raiders, who went for a possible win after they closed within 14-13 on a one-yard touchdown run by Jacob Kalogonis with 1:43 left in the game. The Red Raiders’ attempt for a two-point conversion was denied by tight pass coverage by the Mustangs’ Darrius Turk.
Northwestern finished with a 4-6 record for its first losing season in 25 years since a 4-5 ledger in 1991.
The Red Raiders finished with 349 yards total offense to become the first team to outgain the Mustangs all season. Morningside went into the game as the NAIA national leader with an average of 608.9 yards total offense per game and as the second highest scoring team in the country with an average of 55.4 points per game, but was never able to get untracked against the Northwestern defense. The Mustangs’ 13 points and 259 yards total offense were their lowest totals since they had only 245 yards in a 35-0 loss against Grand View in the 2013 NAIA Championship Series Semifinals.
Morningside finished with season’s low totals of 11 first downs, 96 yards rushing, and 163 yards passing and broke an unwanted school record when Spencer Wyant punted 14 times, breaking the former Morningside single-game record of 13 punts by Steven Watts against Hastings during the 2002 season.
The Mustangs’ defense was equally impressive. Morningside, which entered the game as the NAIA national leader in both scoring defense and total defense, held the Red Raiders to a paltry 90 yards in the first half and did not allow a score until the fourth quarter.
The Mustangs put constant pressure on Northwestern quarterbacks Jonathan Kodama and Craig Bruinsma, and although they finished with only two quarterback sacks, they had 13 quarterback hurries and intercepted Kodama four times.
Northwestern sacked Morningside quarterback Trent Solsma four times, all in the first half, and held the high scoring Mustangs without a traditional offensive touchdown.
Morningside’s first touchdown came on a “Pick Six” with 11:56 left in the second quarter when Mustang linebacker Caden McDonald pressured Kodama into an errant throw that defensive lineman Luke Gibbs intercepted and returned 73 yards for a touchdown.
Gibbs’ TD return was the only score in a first half where each team had only six first downs.
Morningside maintained its 7-0 lead into the fourth quarter before it scored a touchdown on one of the wackiest plays in college football this season. The action started when Mustang running back Tyler Kavan broke loose for a 23-yard run only to have Northwestern’s Donavan Weldon pull the ball from Kavan’s grasp and run 39 yards toward the Morningside end zone. When Weldon felt he was about to be tackled, he lateraled the ball hoping for a teammate to keep the play going, but Kavan caught the ball instead and raced 59 yards to the end zone for the Mustangs’ second touchdown to put the hosts ahead 14-0 with 7:36 left in the game.
The play didn’t break the Red Raiders’ spirit, however, and the guests closed within 14-7 on a 42-yard touchdown pass from Kodama to Levi TeBrink with 6:06 left in the game.
The Red Raiders closed within 14-13 when Kalogonis scored on a one-yard touchdown run with 1:43 left in the game before their gamble for a go-ahead two-point conversion backfired.
Northwestern never got the ball back after three runs by Kavan netted 11 yards and a first down that enabled the Mustangs to run out the clock.
Kavan finished with 98 yards rushing in 25 attempts and Mustang quarterback Trent Solsma completed 18 of 33 pass attempts for 163 yards, but was held without a touchdown pass for the first time in 10 career starts. Dom Flemister led the Mustangs’ pass receivers with seven catches for 67 yards.
Northwestern’s Kalogonis ran for 117 yards in 22 attempts to become the first back to rush for 100 yards against Morningside in an 18-game stretch since Dakota Wesleyan quarterback Dillon Turner ran for 134 yards on Oct. 17 of last season. Kodama passed for 198 yards, but managed only 14 completions in 38 attempts and was intercepted four times.
McDonald led the Mustangs’ defense with nine tackles, including a quarterback sack and four tackles in the Red Raiders’ backfield for losses of 18 yards, to go along with two quarterback hurries, an interception, and a forced fumble.
McDonald was one of many Morningside defensive heroes, whose standouts also included Gibbs with a quarterback sack, three quarterback hurries, and a 73-yard touchdown interception return, Turk with an interception and four pass breakups, Nate Crnkovich with a fumble recovery and three quarterback hurries, Logan Rozeboom with three pass breakups and two quarterback hurries, and Xavier Spann with an interception and a fumble recovery.