Saint Francis repeats as NAIA football national champion

Saint Francis running back Justin Green smiles on the bench after one of his two first-half touchdowns Saturday in the NAIA championship game in Daytona Beach, Fla. (Photo courtesy Jeff Mahoney/University of Saint Francis)
Saint Francis running back breaks free for an 80-yard touchdown during the first half of the NAIA national title game against Reinhardt on Saturday in Daytona Beach, Fla. (Photo courtesy Bill Scott/University of Saint Francis)

The University of Saint Francis football team ran the table and finished the 2017 season with a second-straight NAIA national title.

No. 1 Saint Francis beat No. 2 Reinhardt 24-13 in the NAIA championship game Saturday at Municipal Stadium in Daytona Beach, Fla., to finish the season 14-0 and hold the trophy aloft again.

“Obviously, it’s very special to go back to back, not too many teams have done that,” Saint Francis coach Kevin Donley said in an ESPN postgame interview. “This senior class really created a championship culture, and for them to go out with back-to-back national titles is exactly what they deserve.”

Junior running back Justin Green rushed for 144 yards and two touchdowns, senior quarterback Nick Ferrer threw for 270 yards and a touchdown and junior linebacker Eric Dunten recorded 17 tackles to lead the way. Green was named Outstanding Offensive Player of the Game and Dunten earned Outstanding Defensive Player of the Game.

The Cougars have won a school-record 23 straight games over the last two seasons. The NAIA title win marked the last game for Ferrer, who was named the NAIA Player of the Year on Friday. It was also the final game for offensive starters receiver Sean Boswell, tight end Zach Gegner and linemen Alex Woods, Connor Holcomb and Jaylen Gamble. Defensive starters who played their final game for the Cougars were nose tackle Eric Hemmelgarn and strong safeties Spencer Cowherd and Lee Stewart III.

Saint Francis became the fifth team to repeat as NAIA champ, and the first since Sioux Falls in 2008 and 2009.

Saint Francis got on the board first with a 22-yard field goal by Gavin Gardner. Green’s 80-yard touchdown run made it 10-0, and Ferrer led the team down the field through the air – including a big pass to Dan Ricksy – and hit Duke Blackwell for a 15-yard touchdown and a 17-0 first-quarter lead.

That lead increased to 24-0 early in the second quarter when Ferrer hit Blackwell with back-to-back passes – the second a deep one – and Green scored his second touchdown on a 10-yard run around right end. Blackwell caught five passes for 96 yards before leaving the game with a knee injury. Boswell, who had a key catch on the opening drive, also suffered an injury.

Reinhardt got on the scoreboard with a two-yard Trevae Cain run to cut the Cougars’ lead to 24-7 with 8:29 left in the half.

Saint Francis had a chance to score late in the half after a 38-yard pass from Ferrer to Green, but a final pass to Will Chrisman inside the five came as the clock ran out.

Reinhardt, which rushed for 243 yards with its relentless ground game, cut the margin to 24-13 on a touchdown run by Qua Stocks in the third quarter, but Saint Francis’ Marcus Stepp blocked the extra point. Saint Francis’ high-powered offense, hurt by injury and facing a strong Reinhardt defense, stalled throughout the third quarter.

Saint Francis stopped Reinhardt on a 4th-down play with four minutes left, with sophomore Blake Schumacher defending a pass, and the offense closed out the win.

Green rushed 24 times for 144 yards while Ferrer was 19 of 30 passing for 270 yards. Blackwell led all receivers in yardage before he left the game. Ricksy had the most receptions, hauling in six passes for 82 yards.

Dunten’s teammate at linebacker, junior Piercen Harnish, had 16 tackles and sophomore defensive end James Jamicich added nine tackles, including three tackles for loss. Junior Willy Cole and Schumacher had seven tackles apiece and Cowherd six.