REGGIE HAYES: No. 1 Saint Francis puts work first in drive for NAIA title repeat
About 15 minutes after the No. 1 University of Saint Francis football team found out its first-round NAIA playoff opponent, senior quarterback Nick Ferrer was in a coach’s office watching film.
Saint Francis’ first playoff foe Benedictine (Kan.) sports a defense that ranks second in the NAIA with 46.5 sacks, so Ferrer wanted to get busy discovering where that pressure percolates.
Ferrer’s time-for-business approach reflects the Cougars as a whole.
They feel the only team that can keep them from repeating as NAIA national champs is the one that gathered in the Bishop D’Arcy Stadium locker room Sunday to watch the pairings. If Saint Francis doesn’t make mistakes to beat itself, it’s hard to believe there’s a team capable of slowing it down.
“We’re the best, but at the end of the day, that doesn’t matter,” Ferrer said. “We have to go out there and prove it.”
Saint Francis (10-0) seeks to become the first NAIA team to repeat as champion since Sioux Falls won consecutive titles in 2008 and 2009. They will open the 2017 playoffs at home against Benedictine (9-2) at noon Saturday.
It’s been said, and often proved true, staying at the top is more difficult than the reaching it. When you’re on the way up, you’re the chaser. When you’re at the top, everyone is chasing you. Saint Francis began this season where it ended 2016, ranked No. 1 in the country, and it has worn that target every week.
Saint Francis has taken several opponents’ best shot, and trailed at times in games, most notably at Marian and against Concordia, where it needed its strongest play in the fourth quarters to pull out the wins. Other times, Saint Francis has hit opponents with big plays early and often and rolled to the win.
“We’ve been in close games and we’ve found ways to win through adversity, so that’s what you need going through the playoffs,” Ferrer said. “There were times last year in the playoffs, down 20-0 in one game, where you have to pull yourself out of it and win.”
The Cougars concluded the regular season after 10 straight Saturdays of games, using last week’s open date as a chance to heal their bumps, bruises and worse. Sophomore receiver Rocky James has missed four games, but is expected back this week. Other players have played through pain, and embraced the chance for extra rest last week. Saint Francis practiced only once in full pads.
“We had some guys banged up,” junior running back Justin Green said. “This week was really recovery week.”
The coaching staff dove into studying Benedictine on Sunday. Benedictine, ranked No. 15 last week, is 9-2 with losses only to then-No. 2 Baker 44-37 on Sept. 23 and then-No. 6 Grand View 30-27 on Nov. 4. Benedictine had wins over ranked teams in Missouri Valley (then No. 12) and MidAmerica Nazarene (then No. 19).
Benedictine ranks second in the NAIA in sacks, rushing defense per game (70.3 yards) and total scoring offense and third in sacks per game.
Benedictine coach Larry Wilcox ranks second to Saint Francis’ Kevin Donley in NAIA coaching wins. Donley has 312, Wilcox 277.
“They’re a good football team with a great football coach,” Donley said. “They’re 9-2, from a good league and they lost to two good football teams. They have 46 sacks, so obviously they bring a lot of pressure.”
Benedictine averages 51.1 points per game, which ranks fourth in the NAIA, one spot ahead of Saint Francis (48.8). Saint Francis played a much more difficult schedule, based on rankings. But that was the regular season. The one-and-done nature of playoff games can change everything.
Benedictine will try to bring some heat. The Cougars will try to keep Ferrer upright, as they have much of the season. Ferrer has thrown for 324 yards per game with 30 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
“It’s a new season, and it really doesn’t matter what we’ve done up to this point,” Ferrer said. “What we’ve done has brought us to this point. We’ve done some great things. We’ve accomplished a lot. But we haven’t accomplished our main goal.”
Ferrer said that a few minutes before heading to watch some film. Back to work. Business as usual.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2017 NAIA FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES
First Round Schedule
Benedictine (Kan.) (9-2) at Saint Francis (10-0)
Concordia (Mich.) (9-1) at Reinhardt (Ga.) (9-0)
Sterling (Kan.) (9-2) at Morningside (Iowa) (11-0)
Southeastern (Fla.) (8-1) at Lindsey Wilson (Ky.) (10-0)
Dickinson State (N.D.) (9-1) at Southern Oregon (10-0)
Georgetown (Ky.) (8-1) at Baker (Kan.) (10-1)
Northwestern (Iowa) (9-1) at Langston (Okla.) (10-0)
Grand View (Iowa) (9-2) at Saint Xavier (Ill.) (9-1)