Playing against the No. 2 team in the country on Saturday afternoon, the No. 25 ranked IWU Wildcats gave the Marian University Knights everything they had.
The Knights came in with the top rated defense in the NAIA, as well as one of its most high powered offenses.
And while Marian scored their points and showcased their tremendous talent, the Wildcats once again proved that they not only belonged in the MSFA Mideast League, but that, in fact, they had arrived.
Trailing 24-7 at halftime, the Wildcats made an incredible comeback effort, cutting the Knights’ lead to six with less than four minutes to go in the game, but their valiant attempt fell just short, as Marian clinched the Mideast League title with a 33-21 triumph.
“I’m really proud of our kids,” IWU Head Coach Jordan Langs said. “I haven’t gone through a game yet where I haven’t been proud of them. We want to be at that level. Marian is a great football program, and they are a great football team. We want to get to that same level, and we want to do it our way. I’m just proud of the way the kids responded coming out after [halftime.]”
Marian has been a first quarter team throughout the 2019 campaign, and that trend continued on Saturday. After their defense forced a three-and-out on the Wildcats’ first possession, a partially blocked punt set them up in great field position at midfield, and eight plays later, running back Charles Salary scored from seven yards to give the Knights a 7-0 lead.
The Wildcats’ second drive ended in disaster, as quarterback Zack Blair, who had been nearly flawless in his last four games, threw an interception to Marian defensive lineman Krys Oakley on a screen pass, again setting Marian up with a short field.
The Knights capitalized on the Wildcats’ turnover, as quarterback Ethan Darter threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Greg Miller, increasing Marian’s lead to 14-0.
Marian added more points on their third possession of the quarter on a 30-yard field goal from Matt Plesac, giving the Knights a 17-0 lead after the first quarter of play.
As they have done all year long, the Wildcats made the necessary adjustments, and in the second quarter, they started to find some success offensively, particularly in running the football.
Against a brutish front seven, IWU running back Devodney Alford began to find some running room, ripping off gains of four, 16, and five yards on the Wildcats’ first five of the second stanza.
Later, on third-and-goal from the two, Blair tossed a touchdown pass to Brayden Smith, cutting the Marian advantage to 17-7.
But that was as close as the Wildcats would get in the first half. Salary scored his second touchdown of the contest with 1:17 left on the clock, and a Ben VonGunten kick was blocked in the waning seconds.
In the first half, the Knights outgained the Wildcats 278-106, seemingly moving the ball at will. IWU’s defense had several chances to create turnovers, but three would-be interceptions were dropped in crucial situations that would have switched momentum, ended scoring drives, and possibly led to points.
“We talk about three things,” Langs said. “We need to protect the ball on offense, allow no quick scores on defense, and be positive on special teams. We didn’t do those things in the first half. We gave them two short fields, and they punched it in.”
Despite that, however, the Wildcats came out of halftime with renewed purpose and vigor, and for the rest of the game, they outplayed one of the biggest powerhouses in small college football.
“We trust each other. We trust our plan. We trust a lot of things, and I think that’s what came through,” Langs said. “We stayed together and we trusted what we had. We’ve proven that when we do that, we can play with anybody.”
Their defense, after giving up 24 first half points, held the Knights to consecutive three-and-outs to start the third quarter. After again holding Marian on their third possession, Josh Fusco burst through the line and blocked Luke Frain’s punt, which was recovered by Justin “Juice” Johnson and returned 40 yards for a touchdown to make it a 24-14 game at the end of three quarters.
Marian gave themselves a little cushion with a 23-yard field by Plesac on their first drive of the fourth quarter, but with 8:01 remaining in the game, the Wildcats embarked on one of their most impressive drives in their short two-year history.
Over the course of 90 yards and 13 plays, the Wildcats made big play after big play. Freshman Tommy Fossett caught a 14-yard pass on a second down play, Caleb Kelley made a huge 39-yard catch on go-route down the left sideline, and Alford made a remarkable 11-yard grab on a low throw on fourth-and-5, setting up the Wildcats with first-and-goal at the Marian eight-yard line.
Two plays later, Blair found Ray Chmielinski from five yards out, making it a six-point game with 3:46 to play.
The Knights, however, were able to put the game away on their final drive, eating up some clock and picking up a few crucial first downs to leave very little time for the Wildcats to find a tying score.
IWU ran a desperation lateral play with 4.3 seconds to play, but the Marian defense made a play, causing a fumble and returning for a touchdown as time expired.
Against a team that only gave up 6.7 points a game coming in, the Wildcats scored three touchdowns, and in the second half, the IWU defense gave up just three points, helping the team to get back in the game.
No coach likes to lose, and Langs is certainly not an exception.
But to take a team like the Marian Knights to the wire – a team that has won two national titles and has been one of the best programs in NAIA football over the last decade –is a testament to how far the Wildcats have come in just two years of existence.
IWU’s 21 points were the most scored against Marian this season, and their 228 yards of offense were the second most that the Knights gave up all year.
The dream of making it to the NAIA National Tournament will have to wait another season, but the Wildcats, just 19 games in, have put the MSFA Mideast League, and the NAIA, on notice.
They are here to stay, and the future is remarkably bright.
“There are no moral victories, but there are benchmarks,” Langs said. “That’s a benchmark right there. Obviously, they are a great team. They’re a phenomenal team, and so [it’s] great for our guys to go out there and see that they can do it. We have to trust our plan, because we are still not physically where some of these teams are, but if we do it all together, we can play with those guys. We pushed passion and perseverance all week, and our kids played with it.”
Blair completed 19 of his 38 passes for 135 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception, while Alford picked up 80 tough yards on 21 carries. Kelley made three receptions for 49 yards, while Fossett recorded 42 yards on five receptions.
Salary led all rushers with 176 yards on 39 carries and scored two touchdowns – one on the ground and one through the air – while Darter finished 11-for-25 for 179 yards. Wide receiver Johnny William made five catches for 110 yards in Marian’s victory.