Great Plains Athletic Conferene beat wrtier B. Lynn Fouts from the Victory Sports Network (VSN) breaks down the NAIA National Football Championship Game between #3 Morningside and #5 Marian. The NAIA Championship Game will be on Thursday night at 5:30pm in Rome, Georgia, at Barron Stadium. The game will be broadcast live on the CBS Sports Network.
For all of us that thought the NAIA title game was just going to be the same old, same old this year: two programs come along and surprise us, at least to some degree. Granted Marian and Morningside both started highly rated in the pre-season, Marian at #3 and Morningside #8, but seriously, how many of us on August 25th really thought someone other than St Xavier (17 starters back) and Carroll (8 trips to the chipper in the past 10 seasons) would make it to Rome? Well, the 2012 NAIA campaign may be the one noted years from now as the season that opened the doors to those that have dreams of making it onto the big stage; and are willing to follow through on the effort it takes.
In terms of football, we have a newcomer in Marian, playing just their sixth season at the varsity level going against an old-timer in Morningside which has played football for over 100 years, though only the past eleven years as solely a NAIA member. Marian jumped head first into NAIA football by joining the rugged Mid States Football Association Mid East in 2007. The MSFA Mid East has now sent a representative to the NAIA title game five times since 2004. By their second season the Knights had a 7-4 record and by year four, had won their first NAIA post season game. Since their sophomore season of 2008, Coach Ted Karras Jr and Marian are 46-14 with a 6-2 post season record heading into the Chipper.
Morningside took a slightly different route to Thursday's title contest, transitioning from NCAA D-II to NAIA over the 2001 season when they did not field a varsity football team. Entering NAIA play as an independent in 2002, they joined the Great Plains Athletic Conference in 2003. Since 2001, the GPAC has been represented in the NAIA title match-up 6 times by now departed Sioux Falls.
While Morningside may be a newcomer of sorts to the NAIA in football, for many years they enjoyed dual membership in both the NCAA and NAIA. The very first NAIA football Coach of the Year award went to Morningside's Dewey Halford in 1956. They played in the very first NAIA Men's Basketball Championship. In 1937, the newly formed NAIB (fore runner of the NAIA) hosted, a 16-team field basketball tournament in Kansas City, MO that climaxed when the then "Chiefs" dropped the title match to Central Missouri 35-24. Among the organizers of the NAIB at the time was James Naismith, founder of the game.
Marian and Morningside will both be the third teams in their leagues to play in the NAIA football title game. Previously, St Francis, IN (3 times) and St Xavier, IL (last year) represented the MSFA ME and Sioux Falls (7 times) as well as Northwestern (5 appearances) have appeared. Marian was close to the Chipper last year, suffering a 30-27 loss to St Xavier in the semi-finals. The Mustangs were close in 2005 when they dropped a 42-14 semi-final contest to St Francis IN.
In sports other than football, these schools have found additional national success. Marian University, whose sports other than football compete in the Cross Roads Conference, has sent both their basketball teams to the National Tourney, the women's team just this past March. The Knights have 14 national titles in cycling, winning the National Collegiate Cycling Association title as recently as 2010. Morningside has won 3 NAIA titles in Women's D-II basketball, the most recent in 2009 and the men's squad has visited the national tournament 12 times over the years.
But we're here to talk football, the final game of the season that looks to be the best, if not the most evenly matched, game of the post season. Marian has all the components needed to take the trophy back to Indianapolis. A solid run game behind 5-8, 195 Tevin Lake (1,490 yards rushing, a 5.2 per carry average and 16 touchdowns): the passing game is handled by Adam Wiese (69% completion rate, 2,990 yards and a 27-7 TD to INT ratio), and a tight end up for All American honors in Nathan Jones, 6-3, 235. Two O-linemen ran away with first team honors in the MSFA: Brody Dixon 6-5, 300 and Steve Seculoff 6-2, 280. The Knights averaged 35 ppg and turned the ball over only 18 times in 12 games.
On defense, Marian has a multitude of all-conference performers. On the D-line, Seth Vondersaar 6-1, 225 and Dan Brunke 6-2, 245 were first teamers, joined by linebacker Robert Palmer 6, 180 while Stephen Rogers 5-10, 190 and Nathan Toon 5-11, 180 are senior D-backs with 2nd team honors. The Knight defense allowed only 17 ppg. A potentially big special team's note in Marian's favor is that both placekicker Mike Josifovski and punter Kyle Fox were 1st team All-MSFA picks.
The Mustangs enter the 2012 Chipper behind a record breaking season from QB Joel Nixon. Nixon 6-0, 200 has tossed a school record 47 touchdown passes against 11 interceptions. He has accumulated 3,600 yards through the air and leads the team in rushing with 770 yards. The rest of the run game has been by committee: Fred Jones 5-8 235, Josh Gaedke 5-10, 200 and Jon Halverson 5-11, 190 have combined for another 1,406 yards and 22 scores. Nixon has gone to wide-outs Kyle Shuck 6-2, 180 and Joel McCabe 6-1, 220 for 19 and 17 scores respectively: both made the all-league 1st team. Up front, Cole Albright 6-2, 295 the lone senior on the line was named 1st team GPAC and center Josh Steinberg 6-4, 305 was on the 2nd team. The offense ran up 45 ppg during the season.
On defense, five Mustangs took first team honors led by senior linebacker Chris Calvillo 6-2, 225. He was joined by LB Aaron Roberg 6, 225, D-lineman Marcus Smith 6, 215 and D-backs Colby Henderson 5-11, 180 and Jared Goforth 6, 190. DT Bret Dorenbus 6-2, 255 and LB Taylor Johnson 6, 215 were second team selections. The Mustangs continue to lead the NAIA in scoring defense at 12 ppg and rushing yards allowed at 63 per game.
At face value, based on games played against their mutual opponents, (Northwestern, IA and St Xavier), you can be forgiven if you think Morningside has all the advantages. The Mustangs have wins over both common foes while Marian has lost to St X on the road and enjoyed a 10-point win over Northwestern. But it's a one game season now and most games turn on the turnovers. In that regard Marian is plus 13 on the season and Morningside plus 17. Each has won in the post season by winning the takeaway battle: Marian 11-5 and Morningside 6 to 2. Forcing 11 turnovers against 3 playoff caliber teams is an impressive statistic by Marian; can the Knights carry that over to the title game?
Marian has another intangible: winning a post season game on the road this year, 20-17 at Missouri Valley. The Mustangs have been able to stay at home throughout the past three weekends and will now travel outside Sioux City for the first time since the Hastings game on October 20th. How that affects their play remains to be seen. Coaches are constantly trying to replicate the routine on the road as close to that at home for a very simple reason: most teams just perform better at home.
So who will be crowned NAIA Champion Thursday evening? It should be an exciting game between two teams that are complete on both sides of the ball, maybe the two most complete teams in the NAIA. I think Marian's athleticism on defense will play a part, keeping the GPAC champs under control early. But ultimately it comes down to execution on offense and no one has done it better this fall that Joel Nixon, even when Montana Tech took a 13-0 lead in the first quarter. If the ball is in his hands I like Morningside's chances to take the trophy back to Iowa.
-B. Lynn Fouts