Cougars hang tough against NAIA's top-ranked team
By Steve Millar
After coming into Week 5 with two straight wins, St. Xavier put a major scare into the NAIA’s No. 1 team.
The 20th-ranked Cougars rallied from an 18-point deficit behind a bevy of big second-half plays, but fell just short in a 27-19 loss to two-time defending national champion St. Francis (Ind.) at Deaton Field on Sept. 22.
It was a defeat that bolstered St. Xavier’s belief that, despite the Cougars’ 2-3 record, they can compete with any NAIA team in the nation.
“If they’re No. 1, we played like No. 2,” St. Xavier coach Mike Feminis said. “I think they came in thinking they were just going to put their helmets on and blow us out. I give our guys a lot of credit.
“I don’t believe in moral victories, but our guys played their butts off. We had the ball with two minutes left with a chance to tie the game against the No. 1 team in the country. That’s all you can ask for.”
St. Xavier got the ball to its 46-yard line in the final minute, but Justin Hunniford was sacked on a fourth-down play to seal the win for St. Francis (4-0).
A dramatic ending seemed unlikely when the visiting Cougars led 21-3 with less than two minutes left in the third quarter.
That’s when Hunniford hit Elliott Pipkin for a 98-yard touchdown pass to get St. Xavier within 21-9.
“We were backed up, not in a good situation,” Hunniford said. “I looked over, saw press coverage with no help over the top so I said, ‘If we’re going to make a play, it’s going to happen right now.’ I threw it up there, let (Pipkin) do the work. He made a guy miss and then let his feet do the work.”
Hunniford had entered the game late in the second quarter when starting quarterback Alex Martinez went down with an injury. Feminis said the team feared Martinez, a St. Laurence graduate, had suffered a torn ACL. He was set to undergo a MRI in the coming days.
Hunniford completed 14 of 30 passes for 192 yards in the relief effort.
“I feel horrible for Alex, but we’re lucky because I feel like we have another great quarterback in Justin,” Feminis said. “We have confidence in him and he came in and made some big plays.”
A pair of freshmen teamed up to get St. Xavier even closer as Tim Baity blocked a punt and Steven Meyer recovered it and returned it 12 yards for a touchdown to make it a 21-16 game with 8:54 to go.
It was Baity’s fourth blocked kick of the season.
“I’m always going for the block,” Baity said. “I watch the center’s elbows to see when the snap is going to come and just shoot out of there and go after it. It felt great to be able to help my team. I just wish we would have won the game.”
The last of the game’s many momentum-shifting big plays went St. Francis’ way, however, as Ryan Johnson intercepted a tipped pass and returned it 31 yards for a TD to extend the lead to 27-16.
Richards graduate Josh Hettiger recorded 11 tackles, while Anthony Kowalczyk had nine tackles and two sacks to lead the St. Xavier defense, which held St. Francis 23 points below its average of 50.
The loss leaves St. Xavier likely needing to win its final six games to ensure a playoff berth.
“We’re confident we can win the rest of our games,” Hettiger said. “We haven’t played to even half of our potential, but we started showing it (Saturday). We’re going to build on the success we had in this game.”