Top-ranked Saint Francis football survives gut check

INDIANAPOLIS – University of Saint Francis senior wide receiver Sean Boswell saw the punch coming.

No, I’m not talking about the short brawl toward the end of No. 1 Saint Francis’ 31-24 win over No. 8 Marian on Saturday at St. Vincent Health Field. The punch foreshadowed by Boswell was figurative, that first slap of trouble – and a scoreboard deficit – in a season that had been nothing but charmed through four games.

“I told them at the beginning of the week we were going to get hit in the mouth. We haven’t had that experience yet,” Boswell said. “We got that early. We faced adversity for the first time all year and obviously we responded very well.”

Marian, it should be noted, is Saint Francis’ rival and nemesis on the playing and recruiting fields. The only two losses Saint Francis has had since the start of the 2015 season have been to Marian. Saint Francis won the 2016 NAIA title, a year after Marian won it.

There’s no love lost between the two programs. They live, in part, to beat each other.

“It’s almost a national championship every time we play,” Boswell said.

With a full house on hand to watch the second official Franciscan Bowl, Marian delivered a 1-2 blow to the Cougars in the first quarter. Marian running back Charles Salary broke free for a 45-yard touchdown run. Five minutes later, Marian quarterback Luke Johnston hit Johnny William for a 54-yard touchdown to make it 14-0. By the end of the quarter, it was 17-3.

Saint Francis has been in domination mode all season. Maybe the Cougars had been a little too dominating, a little too confident in their substantial talent and success. They’ve been on a high since winning the school’s first NAIA national championship last December.

“I thought as a team, at the beginning of the game, we kind of underestimated Marian,” Saint Francis nose tackle Eric Hemmelgarn said. “I know they’re not as good as in the past, but Marian is still a rival and they give us a fight every time. But we have been in these situations before. Morningside, in the playoffs last year, had us down 20-0.”

The key to overcoming adversity, and a two-touchdown deficit, is concentrating on making the next play. And then making the one after that, the one after that, and so on.

So the Cougars did just that. Saint Francis quarterback Nick Ferrer led a pair of short touchdown drives – hitting receiver Dan Ricksy and running back Justin Green for scores – helped by an interception by Blake Schumacher. Suddenly, the score was 17-17. One more bit of adversity was left, though, when Marian’s Johnston hit William for a 57-yard touchdown with 50 seconds left in the half.

Marian took a 24-17 halftime lead.

“A lot of guys – I’m not going to lie, myself included – had a bad attitude,” Hemmelgarn said. “But I knew it was going to get better. Sean Boswell and Alex Woods did a good job of leading the team at halftime, and Spencer Cowherd and Lee Stewart are tremendous leaders on the defensive side.”

The Cougars tied the game 24-24 in the third quarter when Ferrer directed an 11-play, 93-yard drive culminating in a Ferrer-to-Boswell touchdown.

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