DAYTONA BEACH — During its three-year postseason history, Reinhardt has found only one team in the way every year – Saint Francis (Ind.).
But the Eagles added to their problems early Saturday night, with costly self-inflicted mistakes during the early portion of the 62nd annual NAIA national championship game.
Reinhardt turned over the ball twice before its offense even took the field at Municipal Stadium. Those miscues, along with a missed field goal in the first quarter, gave the Cougars a brief window to build a 24-point advantage. It was an insurmountable lead as it turned out, with top-ranked Saint Francis holding off a late charge from the second-ranked Eagles for a 24-13 victory.
Reinhardt coach James Miller attributed the early missteps to jitters and a lack of execution.
“I think if we don’t miss the field goal early, it makes a big difference,” said Miller, in his first season as head coach. “Shoulda, woulda, coulda. We didn’t execute well enough, we didn’t play well enough to win the game.”
Saint Francis has won 23 in a row and now has consecutive national titles to its credit.
The past two seasons, top-ranked Saint Francis (14-0) has ended Reinhardt’s year, beating the Eagles by 11 in the 2015 first round and 18 in the 2016 semifinals.
Even when Reinhardt (12-1) worked itself back into the contest with touchdowns in the second and third quarter, it had drive-killers. A second-quarter drive ended on fourth-and-short when a running back stumbled. Another drive, the last of the game for the Eagles, was finished on 4th-and-4 when a pass into the end zone was broken up.
The Eagles defense forced a turnover on the game’s first possession but fumbled it away at the Saint Francis 10 during the return. After again stopping the Cougars and quarterback Nick Ferrer, the NAIA player of the year, a muffed punt gave Saint Francis the ball at the Eagles 30.
Ferrer hooked up with Sean Boswell on a 24-yard pass on 4th-and-14 from the 34. Saint Francis kicked a field goal, and then their offense went into overdrive following a missed 31-yard field goal attempt on Reinhardt’s next possession.
That missed kick, and an ensuing missed extra point, also influenced Miller’s decision not to try a field goal later in the game.
“It was big,” Miller said. “Maybe I would kick later in the game. But I made some tough decisions in the second half.”
The Cougars, who have the NAIA’s top scoring offense, were held in check for the most of the game except for the eight minutes following the miss. Justin Green, the NAIA leader in all-purpose yards, gashed the NAIA’s top defense with an 80-yard touchdown run, the team added a three-play touchdown drive that culminated with Ferrer hitting Duke Blackwell for a 16-yard score and then had Green cap a five-play possession with a 10-yard touchdown run.
Reinhardt dug a hole, but the Eagles attempted to claw their way out. Their running game wore down Saint Francis in the second half, and Reinhardt was able to get a pair of rushing touchdowns.
The defense, ranked the best in the NAIA, began to play like it, limiting Saint Francis to 59 total yards in the second half after allowing 331 during the opening 30 minutes.
“Our defense played lights out in the second half,” Miller said. “We tackled better. Kids were playing faster. Offensively, we kept sputtering. When we got in the red zone, we have to score. This game comes down to goal-line plays and short yardage and making plays.”
They did not have enough plays to complete the comeback. A fourth-down pass from the Cougars 11 with four minutes left to play was batted down. Saint Francis was able to run out the clock for the first back-to-back NAIA titles since Sioux Falls in 2008-2009.
But Reinhardt is a young team. Only a pair of offensive lineman, a defensive line starter and four members of the secondary are seniors. The skill players are riddled with sophomores and freshmen.
The Eagles also hope they can build like Saint Francis, which went from NAIA contenders to back-to-back champions.
“They’ve definitely improved over the past five years,” said Reinhardt’s Marcus Miller, a senior defensive back from Marist who tied for the team lead with six tackles. “All the hard work we put in, we’ve basically set a mark, a standard for future Reinhardt football.”
As Saint Francis’ celebration blared into the interview room, Miller felt his team could be out there next season enjoying a title.
“We’re a young football team,” he said. “We went from the first round to the semifinals and then the championship game. You’ve got to keep learning from your mistakes. Life’s hard sometimes. It’s hard right now, sitting up here especially with that going on behind you.”