Saint Francis football: 5 keys for NAIA semifinal showdown vs. Morningside

Saint Francis running back Justin Green fights for yardage against Northwestern last Saturday at Bishop D'Arcy Stadium. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of News-Sentinel.com
University of Saint Francis quarterback Nick Ferrer drops back to pass against Northwestern (Iowa) last Saturday at Bishop D'Arcy Stadium. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of News-Sentinel.com)

One step remains. One more win for the University of Saint Francis Cougars and they’ll be making a return trip to Daytona Beach, Fla., for the national championship game.

They’re close enough to taste it now.

There’s only one problem: They’ve got a heck of challenge on their hands first.

No. 1 Saint Francis (12-0) hosts No. 3 Morningside (13-0) in an NAIA semifinal game at noon Saturday in Bishop D’Arcy Stadium.

A year ago, Morningside jumped out to a 20-0 lead on Saint Francis when they met in the quarterfinals, forcing the Cougars to complete their most important comeback in history. Saint Francis took a 42-35 win to advance to the title game, where it beat Baker to win its first national title.

This might be a better Saint Francis team. It’s definitely a better Morningside team.

So it’s going to take an epic performance for the Cougars to move on to the Dec. 16 title game against the winner of the semifinal game between No. 5 Southern Oregon vs. No. 2 Reinhardt.

RELATED: Saint Francis receiver Dan Ricksy make big impact

Here are five keys for a Saint Francis win over Morningside:

1. PROTECT THE MAN

Saint Francis has had a wealth of tremendous quarterbacks over the 20 years of the program, but Ferrer has emerged as the best ever. His numbers are outstanding again this season: 3,658 yards, 68.6 percent completion rate, 35 touchdowns and only four interceptions. He moved into the No. 1 spot in the Mid-States Football Association in career touchdown passes. His name will be all over the Saint Francis record book.

Morningside’s No. 1 goal will be to take him down, literally. Morningside recorded a school-record nine sacks in its quarterfinal win over St. Xavier. Morningside ranks fifth nationally with 39 sacks, an average of three per game.

It’ll be up to Saint Francis’ offensive line of Alex Woods, Jaylen Gamble, Connor Holcomb, Austin Smogor and Nick Shoemaker to play its best game of the season.

Ferrer is not easy to bring down. He has great strength and instincts for avoiding sacks, but he also has to have time to make the key passes.

2. FEED GREEN

At times during the Cougars’ 30-3 win over Northwestern (Iowa) last week, it seemed like running back Justin Green was finding it difficult to break through the first level for big gains. By the end of the game, he had 180 yards rushing. He wears teams down with his quickness and speed, certainly, but he also possesses vision on the field that seems to become better and better as games move on.

“Playoff Justin Green is something serious,” receiver Dan Ricksy said.

Green’s 1,653 yards and 24 touchdowns this season are both Saint Francis rushing records, and his yards last week pushed his career total to 4,082, moving past Daniel Carter’s 4,005 mark for the school record.

3. LOCK DOWN ON DEFENSE AGAIN

The Saint Francis defense put together its best performance of the season in the win over Northwestern, considering the stakes and the strength of the opponent. It’s going to be even more of a necessity for the Saint Francis defense to perform well against Morningside.

Morningside quarterback Trent Solsma has thrown for 4,000 yards (70.1 percent completions rate) with 52 touchdowns to five interceptions. He is posting 307.7 yards passing per game. But he also has a running threat in Bubba Jenkins, who leads the NAIA at 160.5 yards per game with 27 touchdowns. Top receiver Connor Niles has 1,352 yards (112.7 per game) and 17 touchdowns.

“It appears to me, (Solsema is) a good leader, a tough kid, and he’ll try to beat you with his feet as well as his arm,” Saint Francis coach Kevin Donley said. “He’s a playmaker. You can’t let him scramble around because he can beat you with those scramble plays.”

4. MAINTAIN THE ENERGY

Thanks to the enthusiasm and “turnover chain” of cornerback Stan Jackson, the Saint Francis defense came up with four takeaways (three interceptions and a fumble recovery) last week against Northwestern.

Morningside has 13 turnovers in 13 games, so it is not prone to turning it over. Saint Francis’ secondary should be even stronger this week with the expected return of cornerback Ryan Johnson to the mix. Johnson missed last week’s game with an ankle injury. Jackson stepped into more playing time and performed well.

The Cougars will need to bring some pressure on Solsma, so it needs strong performances from seniors Eric Hemmelgarn and Jordan May up front.

“They have a really good offense, and some good skill players,” Saint Francis safety Blake Schumacher said. “It’s another opportunity to prove we’re a No. 1 defense.”

5. DELIVER SPECIAL TEAMS EXCELLENCE

Whether it’s Green in the kickoff return game or Sean Boswell and Dan Ricksy in the punt return game, the Cougars need to be smart and efficient with returns. They also need strong kicking from placekicker Gavin Gardner and punting – however rare that is – from Joe Knepper. The other unsung aspect of the special teams is the coverage team, where a number of players have excelled this season.

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