ROME, Ga. | There will be a first-time winner when tonight’s 57th annual Russell Athletic NAIA Football National Championship game concludes at a 6,500-seat facility here they call “Historic Barron Stadium.’’
And, whether that new face in the pantheon of NAIA gridiron champions is third-ranked Morningside (13-0) or fifth-ranked Marian of Indianapolis (11-1), it will be a truly remarkable tale.
Marian, coached by Ted Karras Jr., has made it to the title game in just its sixth season of football. Matter of fact, the Knights were undefeated and just a step away from getting here last year when conference rival St. Xavier knocked them off in a semifinal rematch, avenging a regular season loss.
Morningside is scarcely new to the sport with over a century of seasons in the books. However, the school certainly had no visions of a national title bid back when they were stumbling through their waning years in the NCAA Division II North Central Conference.
That all ended in the fall of 2000, when the school’s final NCC campaign produced a somewhat appropriate 0-9 finish.
Wiping out five league wins forfeited for NCAA violations under Coach Dave Dolch in 1990, Morningside’s final 15 NCC seasons yielded a dismal record of 15 wins in 134 conference games.
Needless to say, Coach Steve Ryan’s success in building an NAIA program out of that rubble, has far exceeded what anyone might have imagined. In this 11th season since the switch, Morningside reached the 16-team national playoff field for the ninth year in a row.
And, after seven previous quarterfinal appearances and two trips to the semifinals, the Mustangs are a win away from the big prize.
Ryan brought his team here on Monday and they’ve enjoyed their days of celebrity in a rustic southern city 90 minutes northwest of Atlanta.
“The city of Rome has been really great to us,’’ said Morningside tackle Cole Albright, gazing out Wednesday afternoon at the bright green artificial surface at Barron Stadium, a rug that is just three years old. “You can tell they really enjoy this. It makes it a good experience for all of us.’’
“I walked in (to the stadium) and was really impressed,’’ said Albright, a former Lawton-Bronson all-stater who is the only senior starter in the offensive line since Dakota Valley grad T.J. Dam, now back in action as a backup, sustained an early season injury. “You can really tell that there’s going to be a championship game played here tomorrow night.’’
Ryan was definitely keeping the mood light, respecting the hard work that has kept his team undefeated all season. He realized they’ll know how to answer the bell when the ball is kicked off tonight at 5:35 p.m. CST.
“You’ve just got to stay focused and not let all the hype and talk get in your head, just stay locked in,’’ said junior receiver Joel McCabe, a former Bishop Heelan standout who has caught 80 passes for 1,224 yards, both team highs. “Obviously, we’ve got to come out and play like we (normally) do. If we play like we do, I think we’ll be good.’’
McCabe’s receptions have produced 17 touchdowns while classmate Kyle Schuck, who has 63 catches for 986 yards, is two shy of a school record with 19 scoring grabs.
They’ve both, of course, been favorite targets for Joel Nixon, the senior from Wakefield, Neb., whose only season as a college quarterback, his position on two state championship high school teams, made him a finalist for the national player of the year award. That award was won Wednesday night by St. Xavier quarterback Jimmy Coy.
Nixon has completed 240-of-375 passes for 3,614 yards and a school-record 47 touchdowns while also leading the Mustangs in rushing, netting 770 yards.
And, Nixon seems to be the No. 1 concern for Marian’s Karras, whose late uncle, Alex, was the 1957 Outland Trophy winner and the Heisman Trophy runner-up as a defensive tackle at the University of Iowa.
When asked what concerned him most about the Mustangs, the Marian coach said, “Not letting Nixon make all the plays that he’s made in the last 13 games.’’
Karras, whose father, Ted Sr., a year older than Alex, is a former Indiana University gridder who played seven NFL seasons as an offensive lineman for the Steelers and Bears. Ted Jr., a 1987 graduate of Northwestern University, where he started four years at defensive tackle, has wasted no time building a winner with a Marian program he guided through its first season in 2007.
“Coach Karras has done a fantastic job just in terms of building that program and getting it to the place where they can be successful on a consistent basis,’’ said Ryan, a 1989 Wheaton College grad who takes a 98-30 record into the final game of his 11th Morningside campaign.
While Nixon’s Hollywood-style rise to prominence at quarterback has drawn considerable notice, it was the defense that made the regular season look easy, leading the nation in scoring and rushing defense as the Mustangs won all 10 of their scheduled contests by 25 points or more.
Colby Henderson, last year’s national defensive player of the year with a school-record 11 interceptions, has once again been a mainstay in a veteran secondary along with classmate Jared Goforth, who has nine picks this fall. Henderson, meanwhile, has returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, including a big momentum changer in a difficult 40-35 first-round win over Montana Tech.
Marian quarterback Adam Wiese, a senior like Nixon, has put together a quality season, completing 255-of-371 passes (68.7 percent) for 2,999 yards and 27 touchdowns. But the Knights also have NAIA football’s third leading rusher in 5-foot-9, 200-pound Tevin Lake, a sophomore from South Bend, Ind., who has rushed for 1,490 yards and caught 35 passes for another 473.
Senior wide receiver John Hasty has a team-leading 47 receptions for 476 yars while 6-4, 235-pound senior tight end Nathan Jones has 44 catches for 531 yards.
Marian took over the No. 1 national ranking midway through the season and held it until a regular season finale Nov. 3, dropping a 23-6 verdict to conference rival St. Xavier. It was St. Xavier, the defending national champion from Chicago, that Morningside breezed past 47-19 in a Dec. 1 semifinal at Olsen Stadium.
“It feels, sometimes, surreal and I also feel very proud for all the hard work that everyone put in to help us get to this point,’’ Karras said. “It’s exciting, it’s fun and there is no better feeling right now.’’