Brace yourself college football fans for the Game of the Century, Part II.
No, I’m not talking about a potential rematch of Alabama vs. LSU for the Division I national championship, though the SEC rivals remain in line for the game’s next great apocalyptic adventure.
Rather, I’m referring to a semifinal matchup of St. Xavier vs. Marian as the cataclysmic battle of small-school college football powerhouses. The two will be meeting for the second time this season, a trip to the nationally televised NAIA championship game Dec. 17 in Rome, Ga., resting in the balance.
Kickoff is at noon (CST) Saturday at St. Vincent Health Field in Indianapolis, the very field where the St. Xavier and Marian squared off in a 1 vs. 2 battle on Nov. 5. Then, top-rated St. Xavier turned the ball over three times (two interceptions, one fumble) and dropped a 27-9 decision.
Marian (12-0) went on to win the MSFA Mideast League title and has climbed to the top of the NAIA polls. The Knights forced six more turnovers in a 49-7 quarterfinal victory over the University of St. Francis. St. Xavier (12-1) has won three straight to set up the rematch of conference rivals, including a 29-14 victory over MidAmerica Nazarene last weekend in Olathe, Kan.
I asked SXU coach Mike Feminis to come up with three reasons why Cougar players, coaches and fans can expect St. Xavier to turn the tables on Marian this time around.
“One, we’re healthier than we were a month ago and have most of our key players back at or near 100 percent,” Feminis said. “One of our top receivers (Wes Gastel) played sparingly the first time because of an ankle injury but is close to 100 percent now.
“And, when our middle linebacker (Mike Bushnell) broke his arm in Week 8, we made the decision to move our All-American defensive end Michael Prosser to the middle linebacker position. He has done a tremendous job there, which has solidified our defense.
“Two, all the mistakes we made the first time around are fixable,” Feminis said. “I know it’s cliché, but I think whoever wins the turnover battle will win the game.
“Three, revenge factor—they ended our 31-game regular-season unbeaten streak—and the motivation to get over the hump and win our first semifinal game—we lost in 2006, 2009 and 2010—and play for the university’s first national championship.”
Feminis speaks with a voice of experience. He boasts 114-41 record in 13 seasons coaching at St. Xavier. He has built the Cougars’ program by staying true to his roots and maintaining a dedication to his community of football friends.
He played high school ball at Marian Catholic and later was a record-setting linebacker at St. Francis. SXU’s current roster reflects Feminis’ ability to tap into his South Suburban pipeline for recruits.
Running back Nick Pesek (Oak Lawn) is St. Xavier’s leading rusher (74.5 yards a game). Placekicker Tom Lynch (Southern Illinois University/Lincoln-Way East) is the Cougars’ leading scorer (122 points). And Bushnell (Andrew) rates eighth in tackles (43) even though he’s been out for a month with an injury.
No wonder SXU is getting set for its version of the Game of the Century. Part II, no less. The Cougars are a home-grown bunch bent on proving something to themselves; they’re just now pulling outsiders in for NAIA’s college football playoff joyride.