Olathe, Kan. -Sophomore free safety Jacob Ghinazzi (Rockford, Ill./Boylan Catholic) finished with two interceptions as No. 5 ranked Saint Xavier University flexed its defensive muscle by forcing six turnovers in a 29-14 victory over No. 4 MidAmerica Nazarene University (Kan.) Saturday afternoon in the quarterfinals of the NAIA Football Championship Series in Olathe, Kan. The playing conditions were far from ideal with strong winds and a muddy field, but the Cougars weathered the storm and got some key scores late to pull away for the win. With the victory, SXU qualifies for the national semifinals for the third straight year. MidAmerica Nazarene ends its season with a 10-2 mark. Junior quarterback Jimmy Coy (Park Ridge, Ill./Valdosta State University/El Camino College/Maine South) was named the Outstanding Offensive Player of the Game, while Ghinazzi earned the defensive award.
Coy finished the game with 229 passing yards and three touchdowns completing 24 of his 38 pass attempts on the day. Junior wide receiver Wes Gastel (Freeport, Ill./Freeport) was his main target with eight receptions for 81 yards and a pair of scores. Sophomore running back Nick Pesek (Oak Lawn, Ill./Oak Lawn Community) was tough on the ground for the Cougars with 25 carries for 80 yards. Junior strong safety Jeremy Rhodes (Alsip, Ill./Drake University/Brother Rice) led the defense with six tackles (all solos) and a forced fumble, while freshman defensive back Clayton Fejedelem (Lemont, Ill./Lemont) was opportunistic for the SXU defense with two fumble recoveries and a pass break-up. Senior defensive tackle Patrick Appino (Rockford, Ill./Boylan Catholic) also had a nice game defensively with three tackles, including a pair of tackles for losses of 10 yards and a six-yard sack.
Neither team could get into an offensive rhythm early on as both defenses took advantage of the sloppy field conditions. A mishandled snap on a MidAmerica Nazarene punt attempt gave SXU excellent field position at the Pioneer 27-yard line and it took just three plays for Coy to find Gastel for a nine-yard touchdown pass. Unfortunately for the Cougars, the wind affected the extra-point attempt and the lead would stay at 6-0 with 6:06 remaining in the opening quarter. Late in the first quarter, Saint Xavier recovered a fumble on a Pioneer punt return to get the ball back on the SXU 49-yard line. Nine plays later, the Cougars went ahead, 13-0, when Coy found junior wide receiver Corey Wennmacher (Belvidere, Ill./Belvidere North) open in the corner of the end zone for an 11-yard reception. A 52-yard reception by senior tight end Juan Redmon was the key play in a drive that set up a one-yard run by sophomore tailback James Tillman to make it, 13-7, midway through the second quarter. The score would remain the same through the rest of the half and throughout the third quarter.
The final quarter was a flurry of momentum-changing plays. Early in the final frame, MNU would take its first lead of the game, 14-13, on a 65-yard strike from junior quarterback Tyler Herl to junior wide receiver Austin Conyers. However, the Cougars responded quickly needing just five plays to take back the lead on a 23-yard touchdown pass from Coy to Gastel. SXU failed on the two-point conversion attempt to make it, 19-14. The Cougar special teams unit came up big again recovering a fumble on the ensuing kickoff to get the ball back at the MNU 21-yard line. Senior kicker Tom Lynch (Frankfort, Ill./Southern Illinois University/Joliet JC/Lincoln-Way East) capped the drive with an 18-yard field goal to extend SXU's lead to eight, 22-14. Ghinazzi made the biggest defensive play of the day on the Pioneers' next drive when he picked off Herl's pass and returned it 35 yards to make it a two-score game, 29-14, with 5:25 to play. Ghinazzi iced the victory two plays later when he picked off Herl again at midfield.
Saint Xavier (12-1 overall/4-1 MSFA) awaits its pairing for the semifinals of the 2011 NAIA Football Championship Series, which will be released by the NAIA national office Saturday night. Based on seeding, it seems likely that SXU will be matched up against No. 1 ranked and MSFA Mideast League rival Marian University (Ind.). The Cougars suffered their only loss of the season to the Knights, 27-9, in Indianapolis back on November 5.