SIOUX CITY – Morningside finally got a home game against Saint Francis in the NAIA football playoffs and despite the fact that Mother Nature unleashed her fury on Olsen Stadium Saturday, the Mustangs sidelined the two-time defending national champions.
Connor Niles hauled in a 25-yard touchdown pass from Trent Solsma in overtime, giving top-ranked Morningside a dramatic 34-28 victory over No. 8 Saint Francis, which showed the heart of a champion by rallying from two touchdowns behind in the second half.
Heavy snow was falling when the game began and after a brief respite, it returned again. Although footing was difficult throughout the contest, Niles somehow got himself free in the left corner of the end zone for the game-winning score.
He celebrated by booting the pigskin in the air before being mobbed by teammates and, shortly thereafter, a myriad of Mustang fans who braved the nasty conditions.
Morningside (14-0) advanced to the 63rd annual NAIA championship game on Saturday, Dec. 15 against Kansas Benedictine (13-1) at Daytona Beach, Florida.
Benedictine downed Kansas Wesleyan 43-21 in the other semifinal at Salina, Kansas.
St. Francis, which erased a 28-14 deficit with the only two touchdowns of the second half, got the ball first in overtime but after a 1-yard run and two incomplete passes the Cougars were wide right on a 42-yard field goal attempt.
Niles caught his third touchdown pass of the game on Morningside’s first play in overtime.
“Our defense came up huge for us all game and when it’s overtime and they’re not going to give up any points we knew we had to go out there (and score),” Niles said. “We called a double move and I kind of got jammed off the ball a little bit. I saw that Trent saw me and he put out a good ball and I just came down with it.
“It’s awesome we got the game-winning touchdown but we have to give it up to our defense. We put up zero points in the second half and they got a stop in overtime. Our defense played outstanding today and without them we couldn’t have done anything today.”
Morningside got a monkey off its back, so to speak, defeating St. Francis for the first time in the perennial powers’ fifth postseason meeting. The previous four games were played in Fort Wayne, Indiana, including a semifinal won by the Cougars last season.
“We put up 14 quick and thought we were doing pretty good but they started to stop us a little bit and our defense was our heart and passion today,” Niles said. “Coach (Casey) Jacobson, our ‘D’ coordinator, told us to go win it and that’s what we did on the first play.”
Morningside came up empty in its only two second-half trips to the red zone. Piercen Harnish of St. Francis – named the game’s outstanding defensive performer by the media – intercepted a Solsma pass on the goal line and the Mustangs had a bad snap on a field goal attempt in the third quarter.
Meanwhile, the Cougars began chipping away at a 28-14 halftime deficit, pulling within 28-21 on a 29-yard pass from Matt Crable to Dylan Hunley with 8:23 left in the third quarter. They drew even when P.J. Dean scored on a 1-yard run with 4:44 remaining in regulation.
Crable, who threw for 236 yards and three touchdowns, found Rocky James for a 31-yard strike to set up the tying score. St. Francis took over at the Morningside 44 after forcing a punt deep in Mustang territory.
Because of the snow, the only way you could see the yard lines when the game began was when workers shoveled. That, however, didn’t deter the Mustangs from scoring on two of the first three plays.
After a nice return of the opening kickoff by Bo Els, Solsma connected with a streaking Niles for a 50-yard touchdown strike. Then, on the second play after a punt, Addison Ross was on the receiving end of a 30-yard touchdown toss from Solsma.
Solsma, the NAIA career leader in touchdown passes, was 28-for-57 for 306 yards and four touchdowns. His other connection with Niles was a 4-yarder with three seconds left before halftime.
That was made possible after Joel Katzer broke through and blocked a punt, giving Morningside the ball at the St. Francis 26 with 27 seconds left in the half. Solsma threw two incompletions before finding Niles to give the Mustangs a two-touchdown lead at the break.
Perhaps the fact that the field was completely plowed at halftime ignited St. Francis. The Cougars found some holes in the Morningside defense and provided some anxious moments for the good-sized crowd that showed up despite the wintry weather.
Morningside Coach Steve Ryan said it was only fitting that his two biggest stars teamed for the touchdown that sent his team to the national title game for the first time since 2012.
“It’s totally fitting for the whole thing,” Ryan said. “The guys are enjoying this. I hate to admit it but as a head coach I’m starting to think about how we need to win the next game. But this is an awesome feeling to know we’re going (to the championship).”