MARSHALL, Mo. - The No. 5-ranked Marian University football team is headed to Rome, Ga., to play for the Russell Athletic-NAIA Football National Championship for the first time in the program's six-year history.
The Knights had to overcome a 17-9 deficit and rely on the leg of senior kicker Michael Josifovski
to earn a 20-17 victory over second-ranked and unbeaten Missouri Valley College at Gregg-Mitchell Field in Marshall, Mo., on Saturday afternoon.
With the score tied at 17-17, senior defensive back Nathan Toon
notched his second interception of the game with 2:52 remaining in the game. This came on the heels of Josifovski's second miss of the afternoon, a 32-yard attempt. Senior quarterback Adam Wiese
and sophomore running back Tevin Lake
were looking to give Josifovski one more chance to earn the win.
"Our players play until the end," said head coach Ted Karras Jr.
, in his sixth season with MU. "They fought hard. Mike Josifovski missed a couple field goals and we never give up on our players. He had an opportunity to win it and he did it from 51 yards out and we are very proud of him. We are proud of all of our players and our hats go off to Missouri Valley. We know exactly how they feel. They fought valiantly and it was a tough battle, but it feels a heck of a lot better than this time last year."
Lake broke a 27-yard run in the drive before the Vikings stuffed the Knights at the MVC 34-yard line with 25 seconds remaining. Head coach Ted Karras Jr.
called a timeout with 1.7 seconds on the clock to give Josifovski that chance.
The Hobart, Ind., native lined up for a 51-yard field goal, he had hit a school-long 54-yard attempt earlier in the day, to give the Knights the chance for the win. The snap was good and Josifovski hammered the kick through the uprights for the 20-17 victory with no time remaining to propel the Knights to their first-ever NAIA national title game. He finished the day with four field goals. He hit from 47, 54, 34 and the game-winning 51-yard attempt.
"This feels incredible," said Josifovski. "This is what we worked hard for all year. It was amazing that I had the opportunity to come back from those two misses and redeem myself. I couldn't ask for anything more from my defense and from (Adam) Wiese and the offense. They really came through. It's just a great feeling and I can't thank them enough."
Lake earned NAIA Football Championship Series Outstanding Offensive Player of the Game honors for the fourth time in his career after he rushed the ball 26 times for 142 yards. Senior Nathan Jones
rushed for the game's only touchdown, while Wiese went 15-of-27 for 153 yards. Jones also led the Knights with four receptions for 48 yards.
The Knights fell behind early after MVC hit a 29-yard field goal on its opening drive, but the Knights responded with a 47-yard field goal from Josifovski with 6:58 left in the first quarter. The Knights took a 6-3 lead when Josifovski hit the historic 54-yard field goal after the offense stalled out on the drive. The ensuing MVC drive saw an interception that was snatched back by the MVC receiver only to see the drive end with a fumble. Again, it took the offense nine plays to gain 19 yards, but Josifovski was there for his third straight field goal, a 34 yard attempt, to give the Knights a 9-3 lead with 4:37 remaining in the half.
The Vikings struck back on the next drive when Bruce Reyes hit Seth Martinko with a 34-yard touchdown pass to give MVC the 10-9 lead. MU had one more chance after the senior Stephen Rogers
picked off a Reyes pass, but Josifovski's 46-yard attempt sailed wide right at the end of the half.
The second half opened with MVC marching right down the field on a seven-play, 53-yard drive that was capped by a Reyes to Jacoby Bellard 25-yard touchdown pass to move the MVC lead to 17-9 with 11:35 to go in the third quarter. It was at this point that the Knights had to dig in their heels and they responded.
MU punted on its ensuing possession, but MVC went for it on fourth-and-six at the MU 36-yard line only to see the pass fall incomplete turning the ball over to MU on downs. The MU drive started exactly how the Knights needed with Lake breaking a 49-yard run to put MU in the red zone quickly. A pass interference penalty moved the ball to the seven-yard line before Jones had a pair of carries and broke through with a three-yard TD run to make it 17-15. After a roughing the passer call on the PAT, the Knights had a second chance and Lake was not to be denied and tied the score at 17-17 with 3:24 remaining in the third quarter.
The first of Toon's two picks came on the first play of the fourth quarter, but MU couldn't move the ball on the drive. The defense held and the Knights went on a 14-play, 70-yard drive that chewed up 7:37 of the fourth quarter clock only to see Josifovski's kick sail wide right again from 32 yards out.
Toon picked off a third-and-six pass from Reyes with just 90 seconds remaining at the MU 32-yard line. A 27-yard pass from Wiese to Jones put MU at the MVC 35-yard line and set up Josifovski for redemption and the senior made the most of his opportunity as his kick split the uprights to send MU to its first-ever national championship game appearance in school history in any NAIA sport.
The No. 5 Knights (11-1) and No. 3 Morningside College Mustangs (13-0) will battle for the title at the 57th Annual Russell Athletic-NAIA Football National Championship on Dec. 13 at Barron Stadium in Rome, Ga. The game will kick at 6:30 p.m. and will air LIVE on the Knights Football Radio Network beginning at 6 p.m. The game will also be televised nationally on CBS Sports Television.