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MORNINGSIDE FOOTBALL

Classic Connection: Solsma's pass to Niles wins NAIA title for Morningside

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Morningside Niles

Morningside's Connor Niles gets some good yardage after a catch during Saturday's NAIA National Title Game in Daytona Beach, Florida. Niles caught the game-winning score with under 2 minutes left from quarterback Trent Solsma as Morningside won its first-ever NAIA title.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Solsma to Niles. Sound familiar?

Of all the touchdown passes the two have combined for over the years, the biggest of each of their lives rewarded Morningside College with its first football national championship.

National Player of the Year Trent Solsma fired a 16-yard touchdown pass to Connor Niles with 1:29 left in the NAIA Football Championship, giving top-ranked Morningside a 35-28 victory over Benedictine (Kan.) at Daytona Stadium here Saturday night.

The two former Sioux City Bishop Heelan High School teammates who carried their immense talents together to Morningside connected on a third-and-eight in the closing minutes of their brilliant collegiate careers. It was the third touchdown of the game for Niles and Solsma’s fourth scoring strike.

“We wanted to move the clock and get in a good situation, we had a timeout,” Morningside Coach Steve Ryan said of the game-winning score. “We had two plays and went with one, they double-teamed Connor and he got open. It was phenomenal.

“It’s been Trent to Connor, Trent to Connor all the way through the playoffs. It’s how we won in the semifinals and how we won today. Two seniors, fantastic players, what a great way to go out.”

No. 7 Benedictine, which led 20-14 at halftime, tied the game at 28-28 on a touchdown and two-point conversion pass with 5:49 remaining. The Ravens then forced Morningside into a three-and-out and got the ball back at their own 27 with just under five minutes left.

A costly holding penalty pushed Benedictine back from near midfield to its own 29 and it wound up having to line up in punt formation. That’s when the Mustangs got the break they needed.

Benedictine punter Jacob Young could not come up with a low snap, letting it slip through his hands. He picked up the ball and was able to kick it, but it traveled only a few yards and set Morningside up at the 18-yard line.

Arnijae Ponder ran for four yards on the first play but was stacked up for a two-yard loss on the next. The Mustangs then called time out and decided on what just about everyone in the stadium figured would happen.

One more time for the history books.

Morningside’s defense still had to come up with one more stop, but All-American defensive back Xavier Spann made sure nothing happened. Spann was glued to standout wide receiver Aaron Jackson the entire night and broke up three of four passes thrown in his direction.

When it was over, Ryan and Niles embraced just before the Mustang coach received his traditional Gatorade shower. Ryan’s 2012 team fell short in an overtime loss to Marian (Ind.) in the championship game, but this time he was on the winning side.

“These guys have been so close for so long every year since then,” Ryan said. “Getting back here and winning it is special. It’s a special group of guys and I’m proud to be with them.”

Solsma completed 19 of 36 passes for 292 yards and four touchdowns, also hooking up with Reid Jurgensmeier. Niles had seven receptions for 164 yards.

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Morningside football NAIA championship homecoming
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Morningside football NAIA championship homecoming
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Morningside football NAIA championship homecoming
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Morningside football NAIA championship homecoming
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Morningside football NAIA championship homecoming

Morningside overcame the six-point halftime deficit by scoring on its first two possessions of the second half to take a 28-20 lead. Niles broke loose down the sideline for an 80-yard touchdown and Solsma also threw a 19-yarder to Jurgensmeier.

The Mustangs capped a 15-0 season while Benedictine finished 13-2 under 46-year coaching vet Larry Wilcox. Marquis Stewart rushed for 168 yards on 27 carries while Shaefer Schuetz passed for 209 yards and a touchdown.

Morningside’s Ponder wound up with 134 rushing yards on 30 carries.

The way the game started, it appeared a shootout would ensue. The teams traded touchdowns in the first quarter, which ended in a 14-14 stalemate.

After that, the defenses stiffened and the only points of the second quarter were a pair of field goals by Benedictine’s Jacob Young from 24 and 34 yards.

The Ravens scored on just their fourth offensive play of the game when Schuetz found Jackson open for a 26-yard touchdown. Jackson earlier got behind All-American defensive back Xavier Spann for a 40-yard reception that took the ball deep into Morningside territory.

Niles hauled in a 44-yard scoring strike from Solsma on Morningside’s first offensive series. On the play, Niles became the all-time leader in NAIA receiving yards.

The Mustang defense set up a go-ahead touchdown as Deon Claiborne tipped a pass in the air that was intercepted by Klayton Nordeen. That gave Morningside the ball at the Benedictine 20 and it took just four plays before Ponder scooted in for a 7-yard scoring run.

Benedictine executed a 14-play, 78-yard drive to draw even, with Marquis Stewart getting the tying touchdown on a 3-yard run with 2:28 left in the first quarter.

Solsma was intercepted twice in the second quarter, each leading leading to field goals. The Mustang defense stiffened after Keegan Bell picked off a pass at the Morningside 14-yard line and the Ravens had to settle for a 24-yard Young field goal.

Then, after Morningside drove from its own 22 to the Benedictine 18, Matt McCullough intercepted a Solsma pass in the end zone. Solsma tried to force the ball to Reid Jurgensmeier between several defenders and it was tipped and ended up in McCullough’s hands.

Benedictine took over at its own 5 (after a personal foul penalty on the interception return) and ran 15 plays, moving to the Mustang 17. After three straight incompletions, Young booted a 34-yard field goal with 4.8 seconds left before halftime.

Copyright 2018 The Sioux City Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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