Saint Francis football runs to national title game again

Saint Francis running back Justin Green accelerates during a fourth-quarter, 61-yard touchdown run that put the Cougars ahead for good in their 43-36 win over Morningside in the NAIA semifinals Saturday at Bishop D'Arcy Stadium. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of
Saint Francis receiver Sean Boswell looks back for an over-the-shoulder catch for a 46-yard gain Saturday at Bishop D'Arcy Stadium. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of
Saint Francis defensive end Jordan May, right, tackles Morningside running back Bubba Jenkins in 2017 at Bishop D'Arcy Stadium. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of
Saint Francis quarterback Nick Ferrer rolls to his right looking for a receiver during the Cougars' win over Morningside on Saturday at Bishop D'Arcy Stadium. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of
Saint Francis cornerback Stan Jackson, right, celebrates a stop during the Cougars' win over Morningside on Saturday at Bishop D'Arcy Stadium. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of

University of Saint Francis defensive end Jordan May made the drive to Daytona Beach, Fla., last year for the NAIA national championship game. The trip promises to be even more fun this time around.

“I remember going down there, driving with Stan last year,” May said. “I told him we have to make this happen again.”

May and his teammate, defensive back Stan Jackson, were among the injured players who had to find their own way to the game last year and support from the periphery. This time, they’re in the middle of the action, and loving every minute of it.

No. 1 Saint Francis beat No. 3 Morningside 43-36 in the NAIA semifinals Saturday at Bishop D’Arcy Stadium, earning a trip to meet No. 2 Reinhardt in the national title game Dec. 16 in Daytona.

Saint Francis (13-0) will try to be the first back-to-back NAIA champion since Sioux Falls in 2008 and 2009.

“I’ve got to pinch myself,” Saint Francis coach Kevin Donley said. “I thought it would be really difficult to repeat and get back there, but that was the goal. We tried to keep things focused and keep chipping away and here we are.”

The final step in a season of fending off all challengers wasn’t an easy one. Saint Francis jumped on top of Morningside 19-3 but adversity caught up with the Cougars. Injuries to kicker Gavin Gardner (hip) and receiver Rocky James (ankle) hurt the team’s offense. Morningside, meanwhile, entered the game undefeated for a reason and finally took a 28-25 lead on a Trent Solsma to Sam Akins pass (and a Solsma to Connor Niles two-point conversion) with 10:35 left in the fourth quarter.

The Cougars didn’t flinch.

The biggest play came less than a minute later when running back Justin Green (also known as “J-Green,” “Playoff J-Green” or simply “J”) burst through the line and sprinted 61 yards for a touchdown.

The score put Saint Francis up 31-28, and the Cougars never trailed again.

“He has the best vision of any running back I’ve ever blocked for,” tight end Zach Gegner said. “He’s takes it to the left and sees what opens up and he has that burst of speed. Once he finds that hole, he hits it and he’s gone.”

Green finished with 234 yards and three touchdowns on 33 carries and was named the offensive player of the game.

Already the Saint Francis career leader in yardage, Green has been known for his postseason outbursts. This season, he’s shown that vision game after game after game.

“I’ve just been extremely blessed with the talent God gave me,” Green said. “Just with experience and God-given talent, I have pretty good vision.”

Morningside’s Jared Amundson attempted a 19-yard field goal that would have tied the game with 5:20 left, but the snap was mishandled and the kick failed. Saint Francis took over, drove the length of the field and went up 37-28 on a 19-yard Green run with 1:27 left.

Jackson, who brought the Miami Hurricanes-inspired “Turnover chain” to life a week earlier, picked off a Solsma pass on the next possession and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown and a 43-28 lead with 59 seconds left.

“I had my mind set on the end zone, baby,” Jackson said, “and we got there.”

Morningside made it interesting in the final minute, scoring and cutting the margin to seven points with 17 seconds left. Morningside’s onside kick was recovered by Saint Francis receiver Sean Boswell.

Boswell had a terrific day, catching seven passes for 133 yards and two touchdowns. But it was fitting that he finish the day in the trenches, fighting for the football, proving Saint Francis’ toughness one last time.

“I’ll be honest, I was punching and kicking trying to get that ball,” Boswell said. “At the end, it was me fighting for it with (teammate Dan) Ricksy. He said, ‘It’s me!’ My bad.”

Nose tackle Eric Hemmelgarn, who filled in admirably on kickoffs after Gardner’s injury, and cornerback Willy Cole (three pass breakups) were named the defensive players of the game. Other players who could have earned the honors just as easily included Lee Stewart III (13 tackles, two pass breakups) and Piercen Harnish (11 tackles, one pass breakup and three quarterback hits).

Ferrer completed 19 of 31 passes for 267 yards and three touchdowns (Gegner caught the first one, Boswell the other two). Morningside’s Solsma completed 28 of 53 passes for 406 yards and three touchdowns.

For the Saint Francis seniors, playing their last game at Bishop D’Arcy Stadium brought no real sadness. After all, there’s one more road trip left.

“We’re going to enjoy this one for the night, and maybe (Sunday night), then we’ll get ready to game plan for whoever we see,” senior strong safety Spencer Cowherd said. “They better be ready to go, because the Cougars are coming, ready to play.”