The next time Mike Feminis is seen walking along the St. Xavier University sideline, his attire might have already undergone a change.
“I’m taking the visor off and wearing a hat because I’ll be completely bald after this,” the veteran leader joked.
“This” referred to the Cougars’ season-opener with Marian University, a contest pitting the past two NAIA national champions against one another. And through 30 minutes of Saturday night’s clash at Bruce R. Deaton Field, it was all Knights.
The defending titlists roared out to a 24-10 halftime edge and, with SXU’s offense seemingly stuck in neutral, appeared to be in excellent position to knock off their longtime Mid-States Football Association rival. But Marian was kept out of the end zone after that, and the Cougars finally took advantage of excellent second-half field position to forge a tie in the late stages of regulation.
A missed Knights field goal necessitated overtime, and senior Joe Gill’s 13-yard pass to redshirt freshman Sean Jones in the extra session gave NAIA No. 4-ranked SXU the points it needed to secure an improbable 31-24 triumph over No. 2 Marian in a conference crossover contest.
“What an unbelievable game,” Feminis said. “I guess it’s apropos — the last two national champions and you go into overtime. I’m so proud of these guys because we had a lot of young guys playing and they really came of age.”
That group of less-tested performers included Gill, who, despite his senior status, is in his first season as a full-time starter after taking over for 2012 NAIA Player of the Year Jimmy Coy. He finished 31-of-51 for 303 yards, but Gill endured some hiccups as he threw an early interception and was unable to guide the Cougars to a payoff on a few promising second-half series, including one that fizzled out at the Knights’ 1-yard line.
But with only 4:58 remaining in regulation and SXU 79 yards away from Marian’s end zone, Gill completed three clutch passes, the last of them covering 8 yards to Nick DeBenedetti and pulling the hosts into a 24-all deadlock with 2:51 left. The Knights also unintentionally aided the drive with three penalties.
“It was like any first game of the year — you’re going to have your speed bumps and you’ve got to get over them,” DeBenedetti said. “At halftime, I gave a little speech [to members of the offense], just saying we were right there. We were moving the ball up and down the field and we got in the red zone, but we shot ourselves in the foot.
“What I told them was to keep their heads up, back each other up and don’t get down — just man up and punch the ball in. We knew how much time was left [after Marian’s goal-line stand] and we know how fast our offense moves. We just kept our heads up, had faith in the ‘D’ to get that ball back, and they did.”
Gill’s go-ahead TD pass in overtime — which Feminis said came on a play Gill audibled at the line of scrimmage — put the pressure on Marian to respond, but Paul Carey’s third-down sack of Knights quarterback Joey Hecklinski caused a fumble. Nick Cemeno’s recovery of the loose ball then set off a wild on-field celebration by the Cougars.
“This is real good,” Jones said of the victory. “We shouldn’t have been in that [difficult] situation, but to come back from a 24-10 deficit shows how strong this team is. Hopefully, we continue to keep getting wins.”
“I still believe we’re going to win every game, but it may not be as easy this year,” Feminis said. “The style points may not be like the last few years. We’re going to keep winning and doing our thing, but it’s going to [sometimes] be a grind.”
SXU actually drew first blood against Marian, doing so on Nick Pesek’s 3-yard run that capped the Cougars’ initial possession. The series was kept alive by Robyn Pondexter’s 63-yard dash, which originated off a fake punt when the ball was short-snapped to the freshman.
But any hope that the trick play had demoralized the Knights dissolved before the opening period expired. Marian countered SXU’s early score with 17 unanswered points, 14 of which followed Cougars turnovers.
Tevin Lake and Anthony Jones accounted for the Knights’ six-pointers on a 17-yard run and 24-yard reception of a halfback-option pass, respectively. Lake, an NAIA All-American running back, also tallied in the second quarter on a 9-yard dash and ended the evening with 180 rushing yards.
However, he was far less of a factor after intermission. Lake picked up just 78 of his total yards over the last 30 minutes, and 45 of those were delivered on the first play of the Knights’ second possession of the half.
“We just wanted to come out as a unit and bring it to them,” SXU defensive end JD Barchard said. “[Lake is] a great player and we just had to swarm-tackle him because it’s just too hard for one person to bring him down. We picked it up a lot more [intensity-wise].”
“Our defense turned it up 10 notches in the second half and it became a field-position game,” Feminis said. “Even though we were still sputtering [offensively] early in the third quarter, the game was played [mostly] on their side and we finally got one in. When you’re only down a touchdown, you’re right back in it.”
Alex Walters and Zach Dolph were the Cougars’ ringleaders on the prevention side as both were credited with three solo stops and 12 assists. Walters also had 1½ sacks, a forced fumble and quarterback hurry, while Dolph was in on one sack.
Carey, who forced Marian’s OT fumble, chipped in 11 total tackles, which included three solos and two that resulted in lost yardage. Jacob Ghinazzi recorded nine assists, while Greg Hayward and Tyler Hoeg had two solos and five assists apiece.
Hecklinski was sacked seven times by SXU defenders and had six of his passes broken up.
“I know they were hurting a little bit at halftime,” Feminis said of his defensive bunch. “They’ve got a lot of pride and they know they’re better than that. I just think it was one of those things where they made a decision they were going to turn this thing around, and they did.”
Dave Marciano supplied the Cougars’ other touchdown with his 1-yard run in the third period and Spencer Nolen also booted a 25-yard field goal.
“This is huge,” Barchard said of the win. “It’s a big turning point because we’re pretty sure we’re going to see them again [in the national tournament].”
The game was marked by 23 penalties, 16 of them called on Marian, including a handful for unsportsmanlike conduct. DeBenedetti, for one, wasn’t at all surprised by the amount of in-game chirping that went on between the clubs.
“I’m sure it’s going to be like this for years — flags all over the place and jawing back and forth,” he said with a chuckle. “This is as big as it could start. You usually start off against a lesser opponent, where you can win on talent, but we went up against the national champions and there was no room for mistakes to be made [at crucial moments].”
Things don’t get any easier for the Cougars this week, as they travel to the University of Indianapolis for a Saturday date against the NCAA Division II powerhouse.
“We certainly didn’t want to be 0-1 going into that game,” Feminis said.
Marian Uni. 17 7 0 0 0 - 24
St. Xavier 7 3 7 7 7 - 31
First downs 21 22
Yds. rushing 170 95
Yds. passing 269 303
Total yds. 439 398
Att./comp. 36-22 51-31
Fumbles/lost 2-2 1-1
Had intercepted 0 1
Penalties/yds. 16-139 7-27
Punts/avg. 7-31.1 5-49.4
SXU — Nick Pesek, 3-yd. run (Spencer Nolen kick)
MU — Tevin Lake, 17-yd. run (Martin Waddick kick)
MU — Anthony Jones, 24-yd. pass from Kameron Utter (Waddick kick)
MU — Waddick, 27-yd. field goal
SXU — Nolen, 25-yd. field goal
MU — Lake, 9-yd. run (Waddick kick)
SXU — Dave Marciano, 1-yd. run (Nolen kick)
SXU — Nick DeBenedetti, 8-yd. pass from Joe Gill (Nolen kick)
SXU — Sean Jones, 13-yd. pass from Gill (Nolen kick)
Marian University Rushing: Lake 29-180, Summa 1-8, Brown 2-7, Hecklinski 9-(-25). Passing: Hecklinski 35-21-245, Utter 1-1-24. Receiving: Jones 9-135, Polizzi 3-38, Utter 3-30, Odle 2-25, Gamber 2-20, Lake 2-16, Wright 1-5.
St. Xavier Rushing: Pondexter 1-63, Pesek 13-37, Simms 2-14, Marciano 3-2, Carroll 1-1, Ferguson 1-0, Gill 2-(-11), DeBenedetti 2-(-11). Passing: Gill 51-31-303. Receiving: DeBenedetti 8-104, Carroll 6-45, Pesek 4-59, Jones 3-43, Vilimek 3-26, Simms 3-20, Frederickson 2-5, Feeney 1-3, Ferguson 1-(-2).