CHICAGO – It is rare in any sport at any level to have the last two national champions square off in a season-opening showdown, but that is the case for the Saint Xavier University football team this Saturday evening. The Cougars, who are ranked No. 4 in the 2013 NAIA Football Coaches' Preseason Top 25 Poll and won the NAIA national title in 2011, host No. 2 Marian University (Ind.), the 2012 NAIA Football national champions. The game is scheduled for a 6 p.m. kickoff Saturday at Bruce R. Deaton Memorial Field in Chicago. Not surprisingly, the NAIA has tabbed the match-up as its "NAIA Football Game of the Week" as decided by a social media poll conducted earlier this week.
"I can't remember at any level of college football that the two previous national champions were playing each other this early in the season, so I think that will add even more excitement for the fans and players," said Saint Xavier University head football coach Mike Feminis. "Both of our teams lost a lot of key guys from last year and they have a new coaching staff, so I'm not sure what we'll see from a scheme standpoint.
"My biggest concern going in is the mentality of our young kids playing their first collegiate game against a really good opponent," continued Feminis. "Our veterans will need to step up and provide leadership immediately, because they've played in a ton of pressure-packed games the last few years. I just can't wait for the opening kickoff. Our guys are sick of hitting each other and are ready to hit someone else."
The Cougars will feature a new starting quarterback Saturday with fifth-year senior Joe Gill (Munster, Ind./Western Illinois/Munster) set to take over for former standout Jimmy Coy, the 2012 NAIA Football National Player of the Year. Gill will be aided offensively by the return of senior running back Nick Pesek (Oak Lawn, Ill./Oak Lawn Community). Pesek rushed for 1,125 yards and eight touchdowns as a junior and also became SXU's all-time leading rusher with 2,383 career yards on the ground.
Defensively, Saint Xavier retains the services of a pair of standout senior linebackers in Zach Dolph (Crest Hill, Ill./Joliet Catholic) and Dave Marciano (Chicago, Ill./Eastern Illinois/St. Rita). Dolph set a new single season record for tackles in 2012 with 128 total stops, while Marciano was not far behind with 91 tackles last fall. The Cougars' secondary will also feature a seasoned veteran in senior strong safety Jacob Ghinazzi (Rockford, Ill./Boylan Catholic). Ghinazzi had 76 tackles, nine pass break-ups and three interceptions his junior season.
The SXU defense will have its hands full with the return of Marian's starting tailback, junior Tevin Lake. Lake rushed for 1,594 yards and 22 touchdowns (four receiving) in 2012 en route to earning a spot on the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) NAIA All-America Team. He finished last season ranked third in the NAIA for rushing yards per game (132.8 ypg).