FORT WAYNE, Indiana - A special season came to a disappointing end for Morningside College.
The No. 3 Mustangs fell in an up-and-down battle in the NAIA semifinals 43-36 against No. 1 and defending national champion Saint Francis (Ind.) on Saturday.
"It was a special year for us," Morningside Coach Steve Ryan said. "It was just a great year. They are just a great group of seniors, first class all the way. More than anything you just want it to continue because you enjoy the guys you are with."
Last year, Saint Francis won its first national championship in a 38-17 victory over Baker (Kan.). The Cougars will play against Reinhardt (Ga.) in the NAIA title game Dec. 16 in Daytona Beach, Florida.
"That's an outstanding football team," Saint Francis coach Kevin Donley said of Morningside.
Saint Francis (13-0) led Morningside (13-1) 19-3 in the first quarter, trailed 28-25 early in the fourth and outscored the Mustangs 18-8 down the stretch.
"I wish the fourth quarter would have gone better, but that's why it is a 60-minute game," Ryan said. "We just did a better job of shutting down the run a little better and containing that and getting some pressure on the quarterback."
The Cougars held the Mustangs well under their average of 50 points per game. Morningside running back Bubba Jenkins entered the game as the No. 1 rusher in the NAIA with 161 yards per game but was held to 73 in the semifinal loss.
Mustang quarterback Trent Solsma threw for 406 yards and three touchdowns, on 28 of 53 passing.
Connor Niles caught seven passes for 97 yards, Addison Ross had five catches for 90 yards and a touchdown, Tanner Ver Steeg five catches for 75 yards and Chad Berg five catches for 55 yards and a touchdown.
Saint Francis' Justin Green ran for 234 yards and three touchdowns, two in the fourth. Last year, in a 42-35 quarterfinal win at home against the same Morningside team, Green set the school record with 296 rushing yards.
"I just wanted to put these guys away," Green said of his fourth-quarter scores. "I was kinda scared there. I saw Daytona flash by my eyes, and I just had to work hard."
Green upped his school record single-season rushing total to 1,887 yards.
"That running back is special," Ryan said of Green. "It is just hard to control him for a full game. There for a while we did, but that helped."
Nick Ferrer threw for 267 yards and three touchdowns, two to Sean Boswell and one to Zach Gegner.
"In my opinion I think those are the two best teams," Ferrer said of Saint Francis and Morningside. "That's a great Morningside team. They have been putting up points all year long. We knew we had a tough one today, and we knew it would be a heavyweight bout. We just kinda took their punches and kept rolling with it. It was like the same game as it was last year."
After the Mustangs took a 28-25 advantage, Green put the Cougars back up 31-28 on a 61-yard touchdown run in the fourth. Morningside drove down the field, but was stymied at the goal line, settling for a short field-goal attempt. Unfortunately for the Mustangs, they had a bad snap and the kick was no good, preserving Saint Francis' lead.
Another Green touchdown run and Stan Jackson's 38-yard interception return for a touchdown pushed the margin to 43-28 and caused the chants of "Daytona" from the Saint Francis sidelines and fans. Morningside picked up a late score, but Saint Francis recovered the ensuing onside kick with under 20 seconds remaining.
"They played hard, even there at the end and down by two scores," Ryan said. "They still thought they could win. It is a credit to them that they never quit, and they fought."