Photos by Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Saint Francis players celebrate after defeating Morningside on Saturday at Bishop D'Arcy Stadium.
Saint Francis running back Justin Green heads to the end zone during the fourth quarter, one of three TDs he scored Saturday.
Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Saint Francis' Dan Ricksy, tries to break a tackle by Morningside's Ricky Johnson during the fourth quarter Saturday.
Sunday, December 03, 2017 1:00 am
Saint Francis 43 Morningside 36
Cougars headed back to Florida
Green's TDs help champions come back in 4th
GREG JONES | The Journal Gazette
What: NAIA championship
Who: Saint Francis vs. Reinhardt
When: 6 p.m. Dec.16
Where: Daytona Beach, Fla.
Saint Francis is returning to the sunny confines of Daytona Beach.
The No. 1 and defending national champion Cougars stayed steady through an up-and-down battle in the NAIA semifinals to defeat No. 3 Morningside 43-36 on Saturday at Bishop D'Arcy Stadium. They will head back the NAIA championship game Dec. 16 in Florida.
The Cougars will play No. 2 Reinhardt of Georgia (12-0) in two weeks. Last year, Saint Francis won its first national championship in a 38-17 win over Baker (Kansas).
Now, the Cougars are going for a repeat.
“You have to go back to get a shot at back-to-back (championships),” coach Kevin Donley said. “We have a shot at a repeat. I thought it would be really difficult to get back there.”
Saint Francis (13-0) led Morningside (13-1) 19-3 in the first quarter, trailed 28-25 early in the fourth, but outscored the Mustangs 18-8 down the stretch.
Justin Green ran for 234 yards and three touchdowns, two in the fourth.
Last year, in a 42-35 quarterfinal win at home against Morningside, Green set the school record with 296 rushing yards.
“I just wanted to put these guys away,” Green said of his fourth-quarter scores. “I was kinda scared there. I saw Daytona flash by my eyes, and I just had to work hard.”
Green upped his school record single-season rushing total to 1,887 yards.
“Sometimes they clog him up, but it is just like Novocaine. It is eventually going to work,” Donley said. “Eventually, he is going to make plays and break free, which he did.”
Cougars quarterback Nick Ferrer threw for 267 yards and three touchdowns, two to Sean Boswell and one to Zach Gegner.
“We still have one more to play, but in my opinion I think those are the two best teams,” Ferrer said of Saint Francis and Morningside. “We knew we had a tough one today, and we knew it would be a heavyweight bout. We just kinda took their punches and kept rolling with it. It was like last year against them.
“We still have to finish it, but it is just a huge, huge thing to get back there. This was the plan all along, and it is not easy to go back like this ... even to get back to the championship game.”
After the Mustangs went up 28-25, Green scored on a 61-yard run to put the Cougars back up 31-28.
Morningside then drove down the field but was stymied at the goal line, settling for a short field-goal attempt. A bad snap led to a missed field goal to preserve Saint Francis' lead.
Another Green touchdown run and Stan Jackson's 38-yard interception return for a touchdown pushed the margin to 43-28 and caused the chants of “Daytona” from the Saint Francis sidelines and fans.
Morningside picked up a late score, but Saint Francis recovered the ensuing onside kick with fewer than 20 seconds remaining.
“This is surreal,” Gegner said of going back to the national title game. “We knew they were a really good team and had a really good offense and a pretty good defense. Once we were at 19-3 we weren't just going to sit in cruise control.
“We have played in big games all year ... and we knew they hadn't played in any close games, and once we got down 28-25, we knew we had been there before.”
Morningside outgained Saint Francis 496-488, but the Cougars held the Mustangs well below their average of 50 points per game. Morningside running back Bubba Jenkins entered the game as the No. 1 rusher in the NAIA with 161 yards per game. He was held to 73 in the semifinal loss. Mustangs quarterback Trent Solsma threw for 406 yards and three touchdowns, on 28 of 53 passing.
“They had some real good concepts, and we knew that coming into the game,” Jackson said of the Morningside offense. “The coaches prepared us, so we knew we were going to be ready for whatever they threw at us.
“During the play, (Piercen) Harnish is telling me, 'go to the side,' but I was like I have to get six (points). I was going to get into the end zone.”
Notes: Saint Francis lost kicker Gavin Gardner to a hip injury early in the game and had to go for 2-point conversion attempts after touchdowns, did not have a field-goal threat and had defensive lineman Eric Hemmelgarn handling kickoff duties. ... Saint Francis lost receiver Rocky James to an injury in the first half. James, who was on crutches in the second half, had only returned to action for the last two games after missing four games with a leg injury.