Young Marian football team ready to challenge No. 1 Saint Francis

Marian University football coach Mark Henninger guides a team with some growing pains.

Henninger has more young players in his starting lineup than he’d prefer, with 10 underclassmen among his offensive and defensive starters. The young Knights are 2-1, having lost at St. Xavier in their season opener. Talented sophomore quarterback Luke Johnston is still trying to get his rhythm after returning from a back injury that put him on the sidelines after eight games in 2016.

Marian is ranked No. 8 in the NAIA and must be considered an underdog when it hosts No. 1 Saint Francis (4-0) at 6:05 p.m. Saturday at St. Vincent Field, Indianapolis.

Forget all those potential negatives, Henninger said.

This is the Saint Francis game.

“If we’re playing somebody that’s not a rival, you could look at that,” Henninger said. “This game, you can throw the rankings out the window. The players will be up on both sides, whether your team is struggling or on top of the world. That’s one of those things that make college football so special.

“This type of game and this type of atmosphere, with two schools so similar and two communities so similar, it’s a lot of fun to play in those games.”

Saint Francis enters the game playing well, ranking on top of the Mid-States Football Association in scoring offense, total offense, passing offense and total defense. Quarterback Nick Ferrer leads the MSFA in passing, completing 72.8 percent of his passes for 1,414 yards, 17 touchdowns and only one interception.

Dealing with Ferrer is enough to make Henninger joke that he’d like for Ferrer to “oversleep” and miss the game.

But Henninger does expect his team will be ready to go head-to-head with Saint Francis. The rivalry aspect of the game will raise the Knights’ game, along with their increasing experience the younger players are gaining. After losing to St. Xavier 32-27, Marian beat Robert Morris 49-28 and Olivet Nazarene 40-21.

“Easily over half of our two-deep are freshmen and sophomores,” Henninger said. “So we have a lot of young, inexperienced guys playing key roles, even if they’re not starting right now. I’d like to think we’ll keep getting better every day, week by week.”

A key factor will be the play of Johnston, who was lighting up the MSFA as a freshman – ranking ahead of Ferrer in passing – before he went out with a back injury unrelated to football.

Johnston averaged 309.9 yards per game passing in eight games last season, completing 67.7 percent of his passes for 2,479 yards and 31 touchdowns with only two interceptions.

Johnston has completed 46 of 79 passes for 716 yards (238.7 per game) with seven touchdowns and no interceptions in three games this season.

“He has gone from, in December, basically using a walker to get around, to playing quarterback at a high level,” Henninger said. “As a true freshman he was leading a lot of statistics nationally and his efficiency rating was blowing everybody out of the water. He’s becoming more and more comfortable and we’re starting to see flashes of that again.”

Marian’s offense also relies on sophomore running back Charles Salary, who is second in the MSFA with 124.7 yards per game. Former Leo High School standout Logan Glaze returns at offensive tackle.