FORT WAYNE, Ind. | Northwestern’s speed both offensively and defensively was never more apparent than last Saturday's 55-7 first-round NAIA playoff upset over seventh-ranked Langston (Okla.).
Coach Matt McCarty’s No. 10 Red Raiders were explosive on both sides of the football. Among the examples were running back Jacob Kalogonis’ 42-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter and defensive end Jed Van’t Hof’s 83-yard interception touchdown in the fourth frame.
Northwestern (10-1) will need a similar effort this afternoon while playing a quarterfinal game at No. 1-ranked and defending national champion Saint Francis (11-0), a team that’s superb on both sides of the ball. Offensively, the Cougars average 46.7 points and 511.8 yards, while allowing defensive norms of 17.2 points and 287.0 yards.
“Speed was a big factor Saturday against Langston,” said McCarty. “Offensively, we were able to attack the edges of their defense. The speed of our defensive linemen and our linebackers overwhelmed them in their running game, which was big for us. The guys were more comfortable in the schemes offensively and defensively, which allowed them to play faster.”
Establishing the run, both offensively and defensively, are Northwestern’s keys in scoring a second consecutive playoff upset.
Kalogonis has a 1,566 to 1,453 edge in rushing yardage over Saint Francis running back Justin Green, a key member of last year’s 13-1 team that rolled past Baker 38-17 in the NAIA title game. Green’s 23 touchdowns are eight more than Kalogonis, whose 140-yard rushing effort against Langston marked his ninth time over 100 yards this season.
Green has topped 100 yards eight times, 192 of it coming in the 26-21 first-round win over No. 15 Benedictine. He also returned a third-quarter kickoff 86 yards for a score.
“(Green) is really patient,” said McCarty. “Watching him on film, it’s like he’s moving at a different speed than everyone else. It all starts with us controlling the line of scrimmage. that allows us to be aggressive and do different things on third down which allows us to be effective.
"Against Langston, we controlled the running game the first three quarters. We got them in long-yardage situations. Any time you can get off a third and long, you increase your chances on getting off the field.”
Northwestern did yield 218 yards rushing in the program’s 20th-ever playoff victory, but did not allow a 100-yard individual. Linebackers Tanner Machacek, Joey Novotny and Sean Powell, who have 79, 76 and 75 tackles, respectively, were also part of a defense which that day, recovered three fumbles and intercepted two passes.
Interceptions for a defense led by defensive back Bryce Van Beek’s seven, won’t be easy. Quarterback Nick Ferrer (3,476 yards, 32 TDs), another key member of last year’s title team, has issued only four this season and threw for 232 yards and two scores in Saint Francis’ 20th consecutive win dating back to 2016.
The strength of Saint Francis’ defense is against the run. Nationally, the Cougars rank fourth, allowing a paltry 83.3 yards per game.
Linebackers Eric Dunten (99 tackles, 9 tackles for loss) and Piercen Harnish (89, 17) lead the way. Each has three quarterback sacks.
“One thing you notice is how that defense flies to the football,” said McCarty. “The front seven are very disruptive against the running game. Harnish and Dunten, both of those guys you can tell make their reads, they know where they’re going and they get there in a hurry.”
Kalogonis isn’t the only key to Northwestern’s rushing offense. Aside from passing for 2,688 yards, quarterback Tyson Kooima has rushed for 623 yards and 14 touchdowns.
“It’s important for us to get that running game going with Jacob and Tyson,” said McCarty. “Both of them being able to run effectively will go a long way for us.”