FORT WAYNE, Ind. | As the old adage reads, defense wins championships.
Defending national champion Saint Francis flexed its defensive muscles Saturday afternoon while steamrolling 30-3 past No. 10 Northwestern in an NAIA Football Championship Series quarterfinal at Bishop D’Arcy Stadium.
Top-ranked Saint Francis (12-0) entered the game ranked third in the country in three defensive categories – scoring (3rd, 17.2), rushing (4th, 83.3) and total yardage (287.0). Northwestern (10-2) was held well below all those totals.
Limited to a season-low 245 yards total offense, the runner-up team from the Great Plains Athletic Conference also hurt itself with four turnovers. The Mid-States Football Mideast champion scored touchdowns after each of its three interceptions.
Blake Schumacher began the Cougars’ interception prowl when he picked off a pass from Northwestern’s Tyson Kooima at the Red Raiders’ 26-yard line with 2:13 remaining in the second quarter. Runs of six and four yards from running back Justin Green (30 rushes, 179 yards) set up the first of Dan Ricksy’s two touchdown catches, a 14-yarder that gave Saint Francis a 14-3 lead.
Prior to Ricksy’s score, Northwestern had held Saint Francis to 22 yards total offense in a five-possession stretch. The Cougars had opened the game with 16-play, 75-yard series that concluded with the first of quarterback Nick Ferrer’s three touchdown passes, an 8-yarder to Green.
Shane Solberg returned the ensuing kickoff 30 yards to midfield. Runs of nine and 11 yards from Kooima highlighted a nine-play, 22-yard drive that stalled when Levi TeBrink was double-teamed trying to catch a 28-yard touchdown pass, but Braxton Williams’ 42-yard field goal trimmed the deficit to 7-3.
Defensive end Jed Van’t Hof had two of Northwestern’s four first-half quarterback sacks. Safety Jerod Hansen recorded his fourth interception of season on the Cougars’ next series, returning it 36 yards to Saint Francis’ 24-yard line.
Jacob Kalogonis, who was coming off a 140-yard rushing effort in a 55-7 first-round playoff rout over No. 7 Langston, was held to just four yards on three rushing plays during a series that ended when Williams missed a 37-yard field goal attempt.
Traling 17-3 at halftime, Northwestern prevented further Saint Francis damage on its opening series of the third quarter.
A 21-yard punt gave the Cougars ideal field position at the Red Raiders’ 30-yard line where on the first play, Kooima was flagged for intentional grounding. However, the drive stalled eight yards shy of the end zone as linebacker Joey Novotny held Green to just one yard on fourth down and four yards to go.
From there, Saint Francis scored on each of its next three possessions. Ricksy’s 36-yard catch set up Gavin Gardner’s 27-yard field goal and seven plays after Wilmer Cole’s interception at Northwestern’s 36, Ricksy 30-yard touchdown catch extended the lead to 24-3.
The 353 yards Northwestern’s defense allowed was its third-best effort of the year. However, an offense that had topped 400 yards in 10 of the previous 11 games struggled, averaging just 4.2 yards per play.
Kooima completed 16 of 30 passes for 178 yards, but was intercepted twice and finished an outstanding freshman season passing for 2,866 yards and 22 touchdowns. He’ll return for the Red Raiders next year along with Kalogonis (1,584 yards, 15 TDs), who never got himself established, held to just 18 yards on 13 carries.
The future, however, looks bright as Northwestern will return several underclassmen starters, including its season tackle leader, linebacker Tanner Machacek and safety Bryce Van Beek, one of two in the NAIA ranks with seven interceptions.