Cougars’ kids play pivotal roles in win over Eagles
This winning is kid stuff.
No one within the St. Xavier University football program actually takes success for granted, but most of the Cougars’ achievements over the past decade have been realized through the efforts of seasoned performers. Rarely during that span has SXU had to rely heavily on contributions from younger athletes.
That’s not the case in 2013, however, especially on the offensive side, where nine redshirt or true freshmen have already logged significant playing time. Understandably, that’s resulted in a few hiccups — against NCAA Division II power University of Indianapolis, for example, the Cougars were guilty of five turnovers.
And even in Saturday night’s Mid-States Football Association crossover game with Robert Morris University, SXU’s offense was less than dynamic through the opening half. The Cougars carried a 17-10 lead with them into intermission, but they needed a trick play to grab that advantage just before the break.
In addition, a fumble deep in SXU territory had given the Eagles their touchdown.
“They’re getting an opportunity [to play] earlier than they would have in other years,” Cougars coach Mike Feminis said of his younger guys, “and we know there’s going to be mistakes made. But we’re not using their age as an excuse.
“We recruited them because they’re good football players, and I’m thrilled with the progress they’re making.”
That development was more evident in the third quarter, when SXU scored three times in less than eight minutes to seize control of the contest. One of those TD drives covered 98 yards.
With a veteran defense stifling Robert Morris most of the evening, the Cougars had more than enough to cushion to take down the previously unbeaten Eagles, 41-10, at Bruce R. Deaton Field.
“I couldn’t be happier with how we came out in the second half,” Feminis said. “It was good to see from an offensive standpoint [our players] weren’t satisfied.
“At halftime, we said, ‘If we just hold onto the football, we should win the game.’ If we don’t put our defense in a bad position, we can be a very good football team.”
SXU’s third-period surge began with Nick Pesek’s 22-yard dash, which capped the aforementioned 98-yard march. Redshirt freshman quarterback John Rhode sparked the series with his 33-yard bootleg and a 23-yard pass completion to another freshman, Dennis Vilimek.
“They’re physically ready to play,” Feminis said of the youngsters, “and I think they love the challenge. When they come here, they know they’re going to have a legitimate chance to win a national championship [in NAIA].
“That [drive] broke [the Eagles’] backs, I think. John Rhode is getting more comfortable with every snap, and he hurt them big-time with his legs.”
Rhode did the lion’s share of the quarterbacking for the Cougars (2-1), going 21-of-34 for 243 yards. When asked if Rhode has entrenched himself as SXU’s first-string signal-caller ahead of senior Joe Gill, Feminis declined to commit to anything definite.
“We’ll see how it goes,” Feminis said. “I’ve still got to do everything I can to help this team win, but John certainly helped his cause. He’s doing very well.”
Pesek reached the Robert Morris end zone a second time on a 29-yard run, while Rhode’s 5-yard toss to freshman Stephen Simms accounted for the Cougars’ other third-quarter tally. Spencer Nolen’s career-long 49-yard field goal concluded SXU’s scoring in the fourth stanza.
The latter had also connected on a 20-yard kick to get the Cougars on the board in the first period, but that was something of a bittersweet ending since SXU had ventured into the Eagles’ red zone and appeared poised to come away with seven points instead of just three.
Nick DeBenedetti’s 51-yard gallop on a reverse upped the hosts’ edge to 10-0, but Robert Morris pulled even by the 5:13 mark of the second quarter. Dave Marciano’s 13-yard run off a fake punt then restored a lead for the Cougars that would not be relinquished.
SXU outgained the Eagles by a hefty 520-165 margin. Starring on defense for the Cougars were Marciano (two solo stops, five assists, one tackle for loss), Zach Dolph (seven assists, one quarterback hurry), Jacob Ghinazzi (five solos, one assist, one tackle for loss, two pass breakups, interception), Greg Hayward (three solos, three assists, 1 ½ sacks, 1 ½ tackles for loss, forced fumble) and Alex Walters (two solos, four assists).
The foursome of Josh Hickey, Marcus Maas, JD Barchard and Nick Cemeno recorded an additional 3½ sacks between them.
“It was a close first half, and not to our defense’s fault,” Feminis said. “They played phenomenal for the whole game, actually.”
Interestingly, SXU’s solid showing followed a week of practice that had been somewhat sketchy overall.
“It’s like they were sulking a little bit,” Feminis said, referring to athletes on both sides of the ball. “We got our feelings hurt [versus Indianapolis], which hasn’t happened very often, and I don’t know if guys were feeling a little sorry for themselves.
“We talked about having to get our swagger back a little bit. I was very anxious to see how we were going to play.”
Ultimately, Feminis liked what he saw, and he hopes to see more of the same on Saturday, when the Cougars venture to Joliet to tangle with longtime MSFA rival University of St. Francis. Feminis anticipates a stern test from the Fighting Saints, but he likes where his own club is positioned at the moment.
“If somebody would have told me before the season we’d be 2-1 after three games with playing so many young guys, I’d take it,” he said. “We haven’t played any cupcakes on our schedule.”
Robert Morris 0 10 0 0 - 10
St. Xavier 3 14 21 3 - 41
First downs 12 27
Yds. rushing 58 253
Yds. passing 107 267
Total yds. 165 520
Att./comp. 26-14 39-24
Fumbles/lost 3-0 2-2
Had intercepted 1 0
Penalties/yds. 8-75 7-74
Punts/avg. 9-37.1 3-35.3
SXU — Spencer Nolen, 20-yd. field goal
SXU — Nick DeBenedetti, 51-yd. run (Nolen kick)
RMU — Josh Techeira, 23-yd. field goal
RMU — Dru Richardson, 17-yd. fumble return (Techeira kick)
SXU — Dave Marciano, 13-yd. run (Nolen kick)
SXU — Nick Pesek, 22-yd. run (Nolen kick)
SXU — Stephen Simms, 5-yd. pass from John Rhode (Nolen kick)
SXU — Pesek, 29-yd. run (Nolen kick)
SXU — Nolen, 49-yd. field goal
St. Xavier Rushing: Pesek 13-95, DeBenedetti 1-51, Hunter 6-39, Rhode 8-28, Jones 1-24, Marciano 1-13, Ferguson 2-9, Simms 1-2, Gill 2-(-2), Dye 1-(-3), Team 1-(-3). Passing: Rhode 34-21-243, Gill 5-3-24. Receiving: DeBenedetti 6-64, Carroll 4-82, Pesek 4-21, Dye 3-35, Simms 2-12, Vilimek 1-23, Scalzetti 1-11, Frederickson 1-7, Jones 1-6, Ladd 1-6.