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SIOUX CITY, Iowa --- It's official. The 2011 University of St. Francis football team is elite. As in the Elite Eight of the NAIA Football Championship Series.
The Fighting Saints (10-2) earned it by picking up their first playoff victory in school history with yet another fourth quarter comeback win, this time a 21-17 thriller over No. 6 Morningside College (Iowa) on a bitterly cold day in northwest Iowa.
Trailing 17-14 with the wind chill at 13 degrees, USF sophomore quarterback E.J. White (St. Cloud H.S./St. Cloud, FL) found freshman wide receiver Lexus Jackson (Crete-Monee H.S./University Park, IL) behind the Morningside defense for a 69 yard touchdown pass with 6:56 to play for the eventual game-winner.
The route that Jackson ran for the winning score was put into the St. Francis offense just this week.
"We ran that pattern earlier and I went the other way to Des(mond Page (Briggs H.S./Columbus, OH)) that time," said White. "They didn't even really notice that Lexus was open on that play, so we saved that for later in the game."
Remarkably, the winning play was the only third down conversion in 15 attempts for the St. Francis offense on the day.
"I'm only concerned with touchdowns and turnovers," laughed USF head coach Mike Uremovich when informed of the third-down struggles.
Uremovich had plenty of his own numbers to worry about, but some of the statistics in this game were head-scratching in how they did or did not lead USF to its school-record 10th win.
While the Saints could not effectively handle third downs, Morningside (9-2) was converting 40 percent of its attempts. On the flip side, St. Francis went for a first down 11 times on fourth down and were successful five times.
Defensively, the USF defense allowed 437 yards of offense. To balance that, the Fighting Saints defense forced five Morningside turnovers. However, the St. Francis offense was unable to turn any of the interceptions by junior linebacker Pete Damiani (Lincoln-Way Central H.S./New Lenox, IL), sophomore cornerback Toney Brown (Mulberry H.S./Mulberry, FL) and senior defensive tackle James Bowman (Fenger Academy/Chicago, IL) or fumble recoveries by Bowman and sophomore free safety Fred Griggs (Rickards H.S./Tallahassee, FL) into scores.
"(Defensive coordinator) Joe Curry did an outstanding job with our defense," added Uremovich. "They had a great plan. Our defense played great."
Curry's unit was challenged several times on the day, including a crucial stop on a fourth down Morningside attempt at the Saints' 24-yard line with 2:43 to play to maintain the four-point lead.
The best moments for the defense may have come in the first five minutes of the game.
Morningside's first offensive play of the game was at the USF 9 after a bad snap on a punt. The defense limited the Mustangs to a field goal and a 3-0 lead.
St. Francis fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Morningside took over at the USF 34 only to be turned away after the Saints held on downs.
Five plays later, sophomore runningback Anthony Hubert (West Gadsen H.S./Quincy, FL) flew around left end for a 43 yard touchdown on fourth-and-one to give the Saints a 7-3 lead.
Morningside struck back on a short touchdown pass on its next possession to take a 10-7 lead with 5:31 to play in the first quarter.
It took over a quarter, but the Saints went to the big play bag again to regain the lead ,,, and it took just one play following a Morningside punt. Sophomore wide receiver Elliot Allen (Minooka H.S./Channahon, IL) hauled in a 56 yard touchdown pass from White with 3:57 to play in the half for a 14-10 lead.
"That route was new this week, too," noted Uremovich. "Elliot never lined up there before and never ran that route before."
The score remained 14-10 at the break thanks to a Morningside field goal attempt clanging off the crossbar in the final seconds of the half.
Morningside, which was appearing in its eight consecutive NAIA Football Championship Series and had won six straight opening-round games, went back on top 17-14 with five minutes gone in the third quarter.
While the St. Francis offense struggled to mount a serious scoring challenge, the defense forced the Mustangs into a punt, turnover, and loss of possession on downs. Three plays after Morningside had a drive stalled at the USF 29, the White-Jackson combo struck for the deciding points.
After fourth-quarter comebacks against then-NAIA No. 4 William Penn University (Iowa) earlier in the season, then against NCAA I Georgia State University and NAIA No. 16 St. Ambrose University (Iowa) in the last two weeks, White was not surprised about Saturday's effort.
"We're a second half team," said White, who was named the offensive player of the game. "We keep pounding the defense. Usually that's when we get our breaks, when the defense is tired."
Part of the reason for the second half resiliency on this day was due to a St. Francis rushing attack that gained 210 yards. That number came against a Morningside defense that came into the game ranked number one in the nation allowing an average of 66 yards per contest.
The offense, the defense, the character… it all added up to advancement to the next level of play in the postseason.
"We should all be really excited about this," White said. "This is the first time in history that we won a playoff game and 10 wins for first time in school history. We have to keep going, though."
USF will find out Sunday morning where its next challenge will come from when the NAIA announces its FCS quarterfinal-round matchups at 10 a.m.