Photo by Jeff Vorva
Quarterback Justin Hunniford runs in the end zone after tossing the ball to the officials after scoring the first touchdown in Thursday’s 32-27 upset win over Marian. Hunniford threw for 425 yards and two touchdowns and ran for two more scores.
The first step in erasing last year’s rare sub .500 season for St. Xavier University’s football team came right away.
The Cougars were 5-6 last year – the first year without a winning season since 1999 – and still picked up a No. 24 ranking in the nation according to NAIA coaches. The Cougars opened their season on Thursday against the fifth-ranked team in the country, Marian, and dominated the first half, lost the lead in the second half but rallied for a 32-27 victory in front of 1,500 fans at Deaton Field. Marian beat SXU 56-10 to open the season in 2016.
The win not only started the healing process from last year, it may be the start of getting the Cougars back to elite status in the country and it also showed its new quarterback is going to be someone who might give future opponents on the schedule some fits.
Junior Justin Hunniford, a transfer from Division III North Central College, barely beat out sophomore Alex Martinez for the starting job in camp and his debut was legendary as he threw for 425 yards and a two touchdowns and ran for two more scores. His 54-yard scoring strike to Chris Simmons on a fourth-and-nine with 1 minute, 28 seconds left in the game, put the Cougars back in the lead for good after giving up 20 straight points in the second half to give up a 26-7 halftime lead.
“That was a good ball thrown by Justin Hunniford,” Simmons, a sophomore who attended Nazareth Academy said. “That man has shown in camp he earned that spot and throws like that are big-time plays and that’s the reason we won the game. I don’t know if I ran the right route, but I was open and he put it on me.’’
Hunniford, a former Providence Catholic standout, said he was excited but calm on the play that meant the difference between a win and loss. He hit Simmons at around the Marian 25 yard line and Simmons took it from there.
“It was a one-on-one matchup with my favorite receiver and I just knew he was going to win it,” Hunniford said. “Chris has a lot of talent and he was the go-to guy in that situation. The safety was coming in on him and I knew he was going to catch the ball and I thought a hit was going to come then and there. He made a move and hit speed took over after that.’’
Hunniford, who connected on 24 out of 36 passes, spread the wealth as Simmons had five catches for 96 yards, Drey Devereaux had five catches for 58 yards and a score, Nick Czeszewski added four catches for 131 yards and Harold Davis had four for 108 including a 78-yard grab in the first half to set up a score.
Abdul Mahdi, former star at Bogan, booted a pair of field goals including a 53-yarder with :21 left in the first half.
While the defense gave up 445 yards to Marian, it came through at a couple of clutch times.
Marian had the ball on a fourth-down play at the SXU 1 in the third quarter and Cougar linebacker Omar Salazar stuffed freshman running back Tristan Tonte for a two-yard loss. On Marian’s final drive, former Nazareth star Dmitri Joe sacked quarterback Luke Johnston and the ball popped loose and was recovered by Jeff Cesario to put the game on ice.
Originally, the Cougars were supposed to open the season against Western Illinois University but the Leathernecks pulled out of the contract and Marian was still available to play.
“We got a check from Western Illinois and got in a great game against a rival, so it couldn’t have worked out any better,’’ SXU coach Mike Feminis said.
SXU visits Missouri Baptist at noon Saturday in St. Louis. Missouri had six turnovers in a 28-7 road loss to Lyon (Ark.) to open the season.