Saint Xavier at Morningside NAIA football

Morningside's Tanner Ver Steeg catches a pass for a touchdown against Saint Xavier during NAIA quarterfinal football action at Olsen Stadium.

Jim Lee, Sioux City Journal

SIOUX CITY | Tanner Ver Steeg's text message sums up Morningside's season-long mission.

"I texted Chad (Berg) right away and I said 'yeah, we got Saint Francis.' I told him 'let's go baby, let's go do this thing.'" said the senior wide receiver from Little Rock.

The Mustangs season has always seemed destined to reach this point against this team. The third-ranked team in the nation will travel to Fort Wayne, Indiana to face the top-ranked Cougars (12-0), the defending national champions, in the NAIA Championship Series Semifinals Saturday.

For the fifth time in six years the Mustangs have reached the national semifinals and so many of these players have been key parts of past teams that have come up just short. That includes last season in the quarterfinals when Morningside jumped out to a 20-0 lead only to fall 42-35 to Saint Francis.

"To be at the place we want to be at the end of the year I knew we would have to face these guys and we are ready for this weekend," said Berg, a senior wide receiver.

The Mustangs are ready not just because they have gone 13-0 to earn the right to be here. This is about a summer of work that trumps what has been done in recent years. This is when getting up early and staying after practice pays off most.

Saturday is a big game but, don't get confused, it isn't revenge. This is for this group of Mustangs and not about another team.

"This isn't anything talking about revenge," Ver Steeg said. "This is us, this is a new team, this is us going out and taking care of business and going out and playing our brand of football.

"We have more guys in the weight room that stayed this summer, this offseason than any other year. Our offseason really prepared us, and it is one of the best offseasons we have had."

Morningside will be tested.

Saint Francis has won 22 straight games since a loss in the quarterfinals in 2015. The Cougars have won all three previous meetings with the Mustangs, all in postseason play.

"Sooner or later we were going to have to play them," Morningside Coach Steve Ryan said. "They are the reigning national champions and ranked No. 1 and all of that rightfully so. We were going to have to step on the field with them and it might as well be now. We are ready to go."

Morningside quarterback Trent Solsma, who is completing 70.1 percent of his passes this season, has thrown for 4,000 yards and a school-record 52 touchdowns to go with just five interceptions. Running back Bubba Jenkins leads the NAIA with 2,087 yards rushing and has eclipsed 100 yards in 12 straight contests.

Connor Niles, Morningside's all-time leader with 3,603 yards receiving, is closing in on another record as he is just four catches short of the most receptions in a season of 93 by Antuan Bloom in 2007.

Morningside had success against the Cougars last year as Solsma threw for 441 yards and three touchdowns while running back Tyler Kavan eclipsed 100 yards rushing.

Chase Reis, who tied a playoff record with three sacks last week, is helping lead a defense that has given up just seven points in each of its two playoff victories, 63-7 over Sterling (Kan.) and 52-7 against Saint Xavier (Ill.).

"Our defense is playing spectacular right now and it helps us big time and that helps us because we know we just have to score for our defense," Ver Steeg said.

The defending national champions downed Northwestern 30-3 last week. Saint Francis has allowed an average of only 16.0 points per game to rank third in the nation in scoring defense. The Cougars are fourth in the nation in rushing defense with an average of 81.1 yards per game and sixth in total defense with an average of 283.5 yards per game.

"There whole defense is just going to be really good," Ver Steeg said. "Coach (Lucas) Lueders and Coach Ryan are going to have us prepared for what we are going to see on Saturday and it is just going to be a fun game," Ver Steeg said.

The Cougars’ opponents are averaging only 2.6 yards per rushing attempt, and strong safety Spencer Cowherd is a returning All-American as he made the switch from linebacker a season ago.

Saint Francis picked off three passes and recovered a fumble last week against the Red Raiders while Morningside has two turnovers in the postseason.

"We need to take care of the ball, make sure we are not turning it over and be able to run the ball while not allowing them to make us one-dimensional," Ryan said.

Quarterback Nick Ferrer, the Mid-States Football Association Mideast League Offensive Player of the Year, has thrown for 3,658 yards and 35 touchdowns with four interceptions. Ferrer threw for five touchdowns against Morningside last season.

Justin Green leads the NAIA with 181.9 all-purpose years per game and has rushed for 1,653 yards and 24 touchdowns this season. He ran for 296 yards and a touchdown last season against the Mustangs.

"I think we have a little more familiarity with who they are and what they want to do," Ryan said. "The same they could say about us.

"We have re-watched (last year's tape) before and you just come away with there are some things we have to do better if we want to win this game. Part of it is we have to tackle better and be able to shut down the running game better."

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