INDIANAPOLIS - For the second straight season, the Marian University football team is headed to the NAIA Football Championship Series semifinals after the No. 5-ranked Knights posted a 45-34 victory over the No. 6-ranked University of Saint Francis (Ind.) on Saturday afternoon at St.Vincent Health Field in Indianapolis.
The Knights improved to 10-1, while the Cougars ended their season at 9-3.
The Knights used 17 unanswered points in the first half to stake themselves a 17-7 lead and out-scored the Cougars 28-27 in the second half to hold on for the 11-point victory.
Sophomore running back Tevin Lake earned NAIA Football Championship Series Outstanding Offensive Player of the Game honors after he rushed the ball 30 times for 141 yards and scored three touchdowns. The 100-yard performance was Lake's seventh of the season and the 13th of his career. Junior Robert Palmer earned NAIA Football Championship Series Outstanding Defensive Player of the Game honors after he tallied seven tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss and an interception for the Knights.
Senior quarterback Adam Wiese finished 26-of-34 for 212 yards passing and two passing touchdowns, while senior wide receiver John Hasty had a game-high eight catches for 65 yards and a touchdown. Lake also had five catches for 27 yards, while senior tight end Nathan Jones rushed the ball five times for 31 yards and had four receptions for 63 yards for MU.
David Yoder finished 25-of-42 for 278 passing yards and three touchdowns for USF, while Aaron Knight led the Cougars with six receptions for 70 yards and two touchdowns.
The Cougars scored the game's first points on the opening drive after Seth Stuart capped an eight-play, 69-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown run to give USF a 7-0 lead.
After their opening drive ended with an interception, the Knights held the Cougars and responded on offense with an eight-play, 71-yard drive that resulted in a five-yard touchdown run by Lake. MU senior defensive end Dan Brunke was the star on the next USF drive after he picked off a Yoder pass and ran it back 37 yards to put MU in scoring position. The Cougars held, and senior Michael Josifovski converted a 34-yard field goal to make it 10-7 with 11:56 remaining in the half.
The Cougars were forced to punt on their next drive, and the Knights took advantage. A great punt by Kollin Carman pinned the Knight at their own 10-yard line, but that did not deter Wiese and the Knights. Wiese took the Knights on an 18-play, 90-yard marathon drive that chewed up 7:57 of the second quarter clock and was capped with a four-yard touchdown pass to senior Brandon Sherman. The Knights were able to hold and went into the locker room holding a 17-7 lead.
MU out-gained the Cougars for the half, 202-160, and Wiese closed the half 16-of-21 for 127 passing yards and a score. Lake finished the first 30 minutes with 12 rushes for 58 yards and a score.
The second half was a battle as the Cougars would not go down lightly. MU was forced to punt on the second half-opening possession, but a muffed punt was recovered by senior fullback Brad Naffziger to give MU the ball back quickly. Wiese threw an interception on the first play, and USF was back in business at nearly the same spot in which the fumble occurred. However, the MU defense held and the Cougars were forced to punt. Then the scoring really started.
The Knights marched down the field on a 12-play, 89-yard drive after USF's punt and Lake capped the drive with a one-yard TD run for his second score of the day to make it 24-7. USF immediately answered when Yoder hit Akeim Kelsaw with an 11-yard TD pass to cap an eight-play, 70-yard drive and cut it to 24-14. Junior Clifford Brown put his stamp on the game when he returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for the third kickoff return touchdown in program history to make it 30-14 with 2:23 remaining in the third quarter.
The Cougars responded again with a nine-play, 73-yard drive that was capped by an 11-yard TD pass from Yoder to Aaron Knight to cut it back to 30-21 with 13:58 remaining in the game. Another MU punt gave USF the ball at its own 20-yard line, but on third-and-10, Palmer stepped in front of a Yoder pass for his team-leading fourth interception of the campaign. MU was able to convert the pick into points when Wiese hit senior John Hasty with a 15-yard touchdown pass to make it 38-21 with 7:27 remaining.
However, Austin Coleman, the MSFA's leading kick returner, was not to be outdone by Brown's TD return. Coleman took the ensuing kickoff the length of the field for a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown and shift the momentum back toward USF with 7:11 to go. USF had cut the lead back to 10, 38-28, and it seemed they had the momentum.
Head coach Ted Karras Jr. decided it was time to let Lake take over and he responded. An 11-play, 65-yard drive featured Lake carrying the ball eight times for 41 yards on the drive, including an eight-yard touchdown run for his third score of the day to give MU a 45-28 lead with just 1:36 remaining. The score was his 16th of the season and the 34th in his two seasons.
The Cougars quickly drove down the field and scored to make it 45-34, but it was too late and the Knights hung on for their second straight NAIA FCS quarterfinal victory.
The No. 5 Knights (10-1) will head to No. 2-ranked Missouri Valley College (12-0) next Saturday for the 2012 NAIA Football Championship Series semifinals. Kickoff is slated for 2 p.m. EST and will air LIVE on the Knights Football Radio Network beginning at 1:45 p.m. Dr. David Pierce (p-b-p) and Isaac Jean (color) will be on the call from Marshall, Mo.