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Morningside vs Sterling NAIA playoff football

Morningside's Caden McDonald pressures Sterling's Michael Winstead as he kicks during NAIA first-round football playoff action last Saturday.


That may be the best way to describe the last time Morningside and Saint Xavier met in the postseason. Morningside won a 75-69 quadruple overtime first-round game at Olsen Stadium in 2015 as running back Tyler Kavan ran 13 yards for the winning touchdown before the Mustangs celebrated the victory in the snow.

There won’t be any snow on the field for the NAIA Championship Series quarterfinal – thankfully – but that game still stands out in the mind of third-ranked Morningside coach Steve Ryan’s mind.

“Without question it had so many things in it in terms of big plays and excitement and lead changes and four overtimes,” he said. “It was one of the most exciting games I have coached in.

“On Saturday it is going to be a great football game. Both teams have exciting offenses, both teams have outstanding defenses. I think it could have all the same elements of the last game.”

Morningside has had the postseason advantage over the No. 8 Cougars winning both previous matchups. The Mustangs claimed a 47-19 win in a 2012 semifinal before taking the 2015 showdown.

The Mustangs (12-0) are coming off a 63-7 victory over Sterling in the opening round. They are in the quarterfinals for the 11th time in the past 13 seasons.

Quarterback Trent Solsma threw for 255 yards and a career-high six touchdowns against Sterling to raise his season total to 3,665 yards and 48 touchdowns. He is still on pace to break the school record for completion percentage in a season sitting at 71 percent, and needs just one more touchdown pass to tie Joel Nixon for most in a season.

Wide receiver Connor Niles has experience against Saint Xavier hauling in six passes for 83 yards and a touchdown in the 2015 matchup, and running back Bubba Jenkins is 96 yards shy of a 2,000-yard season as he continues to pace all NAIA runners. He would become the second player in Morningside history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season after Brandon Wegher accomplished the feat with 2,610 yards in the 2014 season.

Both teams come into the game having had to prepare around the Thanksgiving holiday.

“The holiday adds little bit of a challenge just in terms of working through things and a lot of it is keep the guys focused on what the task is at hand,” Ryan said. “They have put great focus and attention to the week at hand and I am very pleased with the way they have prepared.”

As is often the case, Ryan said protecting the ball will be key for the Mustangs. The Cougars had a pair of interceptions and two fumble recoveries last week against Grand View.

Saint Xavier (10-1) is the Mid-State Football Association Midwest League champion with its lone set back this season to defending national champion St. Francis, 48-23.

Mike Ivlow leads the Cougars rushing attack with 1,059 yards and ran for 241 yards in last week's 39-23 win over Grand View.

“Their running game has improved steadily as they have gone through the year and specially him,” Ryan said. “He has been putting up good numbers for them at the end of the year.”

The Cougars boast one of the nation’s best offensive linemen in senior Justin Hunter, a 6-foot-2, 305-pound first-team All-American, and quarterback Alex Martinez has thrown for 2,103 yards, 21 touchdowns and six interceptions.

“I think their lines up front will be the best we have seen to date,” Ryan said. “(Hunter) was an outstanding football player two years ago when we played against him and has just gotten better. A lot of their O-linemen, D-linemen played against us two years ago and now it is two years later and they are better football players.”

The Morningside defense could be challenged even more with middle linebacker Caden McDonald’s status for the game unknown. The GPAC Defensive Player of the Year as a middle linebacker was injured in the second half against Sterling and did not return.

McDonald leads the Mustangs in almost every defensive statistical category with team-high totals of 56 solos, 41 assists, 97 total tackles, 13 tackles behind the line of scrimmage for losses of 53 yards, seven quarterback hurries, 4.5 quarterback sacks, five interceptions and two blocked kicks.

“We haven’t made a final decision yet, but if Caden can go he is going to go,” Ryan said. “If we have Caden fantastic, if we don’t we will be OK.”

Sophomore outside linebacker Joel Katzer is coming off a career-high 12 tackles and three pass breakups against Sterling. Jesse Faltys, who began the year as the starting middle linebacker before being injured, has subbed for McDonald before should he be out.

A win for the Mustangs would put them in the semifinals for the fifth time in six years.


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