Saint Francis football: Five keys to a quarterfinal NAIA playoff win

Saint Francis running back Justin Green, center, sprints for a touchdown against Taylor in the last regular-season game. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of News-Sentinel.com)
Saint Francis cornerback Ryan Johnson, left, tackles Benedictine running back Ejay Johnson during their NAIA playoff game last Saturday at Bishop D'Arcy Stadium. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of News-Sentinel.com)
Saint Francis receiver Dan Ricksy, center, fights for yardage against Benedictine last Saturday. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of News-Sentinel.com)

The No. 1 University of Saint Francis football team’s next stop in the NAIA playoffs is a quarterfinal game against Northwestern (Iowa) at noon Saturday in Bishop D’Arcy Stadium.

Saint Francis, the defending national champ, is riding a 21-game winning streak over two seasons after beating Benedictine 26-21 in the opening round last Saturday.

Here are five keys for the Cougars (11-0) to beat Northwestern (10-1) and reach the NAIA semifinals:

1. PROTECT THE BALL

The win over Benedictine remained in jeopardy throughout the night in part because Saint Francis fumbled three times and lost all three. The final one, late in the game, came when Offensive Player of the Game running back Justin Green had the ball knocked out of his hands in Benedictine territory. It looked like the ball went out of bounds before it was recovered, but it was ruled in Benedictine’s favor. The Cougars defense came up with a big stop, including a fourth-down pass breakup by cornerback Stan Jackson, to prevent further damage.

Saint Francis quarterback Nick Ferrer completed 22 of 32 passes for 236 yards with a pair of touchdowns and no interceptions. Another interception-free day this week could prove pivotal, too.

2. KEEP GOING GREEN

Green’s late-game fumble aside, he always reaches his peak as a running back in the postseason and he got off to a good start against Benedictine. Green rushed for 191 yards and a touchdown and returned a kick 86 yards for a score.

Northwestern ranks 52nd in the NAIA against the run, allowing 186.3 yards per game. This is a vulnerable spot that Saint Francis could exploit.

“Whenever we have a good running game going on, I feel it’s kind of demoralizing to the defense,” Saint Francis left guard Jaylen Gamble said. “Once we get the run game going, the pass game opens up and it gives us so many ways to hurt people.”

3. SLOW NORTHWESTERN RUNNING GAME

Northwestern running back Jacob Kalogonis ranks second in the NAIA with an average of 142.4 yards rushing per game. The Saint Francis defense, meanwhile, ranks fourth in the NAIA in rushing defense, allowing 83.3 yards per game.

If the defensive front continues to occupy blockers, linebacker playmakers Piercen Harnish and Eric Dunten will be the keys to stepping up and shuting down the run.

“They have some talent, they have some speed at their skill positions,” Saint Francis strong safety Spencer Cowherd said. “At this point in the playoffs, every team going to have some talent at the skill positions.”

4. CONTINUE DIVERSE PASSING ATTACK

Ferrer has cultivated a bevy of receiving targets over the course of the season. He has five receivers with 300 or more yards receiving this season: Dan Ricksy (949), Sean Boswell (862), Rocky James (705), Duke Blackwell (312) and Will Chrisman (312). Then there’s tight end Zach Gegner, who pulled in a key touchdown pass in the win over Benedictine. Gegner doesn’t get a lot of opportunities (15 catches, 117 yards) but he’s as tough as they come.

Ferrer continues to complete 70 percent of his passes (254 of 363), averaging 316 yards per game. He has thrown 32 touchdown passes with only three interceptions.

5. JUMP OUT TO FAST START

Saint Francis has been able to take control of several games this season with big first-quarter production. It’s not essential to winning. The Cougars were able to come back from a 14-6 halftime deficit against Benedictine. But it helps to get a fast start. Look for a ton of Green runs early, but perhaps a couple of shots down the field to Ricksy and James, who returned last week after missing four games with a knee injury.

“I think we did a good job balancing the highs and lows (last week),” Saint Francis defensive end Jordan May said. “We’re maintaining that focus and sticking together.”

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