Mistake-prone, injury-plagued Cougars lose league opener
Saturday’s homecoming football game at St. Xavier University started four hours earlier than scheduled because of a threat of bad weather.
Nature’s worst was avoided, but what the host Cougars couldn’t dodge was a hefty share of bad luck.
Already down a couple men on the defensive side, SXU’s ranks got thinned further when Jacob Ghinazzi was ejected from the Cougars’ Mid-States Football Association Midwest League opener because of helmet-to-helmet contact with a Grand View University player. And the Cougars weren’t spared grief on the offensive side, either, as both quarterback John Rhode (separated shoulder) and tailback Nick Pesek (severe ankle sprain) exited the game prematurely with injuries.
To make matters even worse, SXU was also mistake-prone. Six turnovers plagued the home team, and those miscues couldn’t be played through. Instead, the NAIA No. 4-ranked visitors toppled the No. 3 Cougars 48-21 at Bruce R. Deaton Field.
The setback was just the second suffered by SXU at home in five seasons, and it was also the Cougars’ first Midwest League loss since 2006. For the past six years, they were part of the MSFA Mideast League.
The most telling aspect of the defeat, however, was that it placed SXU (3-2, 0-1) in a somewhat precarious position as far as tournament qualifying goes. The Cougars may have already reached their limit in the number of losses they can afford while still meriting consideration for the 16-school NAIA playoffs in late November.
And next up on the docket is a Saturday road date with No. 6-ranked University of St. Francis (Ind.) in Fort Wayne. Like SXU, the other batch of Cougars will enter the contest minus some key skill-position individuals, which prompted Mike Feminis to describe the impending matchup as a clash between “two very proud programs that are both really dinged up.”
“All we can keep talking about is our expectations as a program,” SXU’s coach said. “[Our athletes] know they’re going to have to raise their game up. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us [about the injuries]. Guys have to step up, and we’ll get back to work.”
And Feminis is not expecting anything less from his players simply because several of them are in the midst of their inaugural collegiate campaign.
“Our freshmen have played five games against five pretty good opponents,” he said. “It’s not like they haven’t been in pressure situations, but they have no choice right now [except to prepare for more].”
Grand View put pressure on the Cougars by thrusting them into a 35-14 halftime hole. The Vikings’ first four touchdowns all resulted from drives that lasted six plays or more and covered at least 68 yards, while their final one came on an 11-yard interception return by Dudley Bickham near the end of the second period.
“I take the blame for that one,” Feminis said of Bickham’s steal. “I shouldn’t have put our freshman quarterback in that situation, but I wanted to see if we could make something [positive] happen [before intermission].”
The pickoff was one of five Grand View made against Rhode. Three of the others short-circuited SXU marches into Vikings territory, including one in the second half that had brought the hosts inside their foe’s 10-yard line.
“A couple interceptions weren’t his fault,” Feminis said. “We had some protection breakdowns.”
Rhode’s 2-yard keeper got the Cougars on the board in the first quarter, the run capping an 11-play, 57-yard trek that was highlighted by the redshirt freshman’s own 15-yard bootleg and his 15-yard pass completion to Dennis Vilimek.
That drew SXU within 14-7, but Grand View tallied the next 14 points, doing so on Charles Badgett’s 2-yard dash and a 52-yard Derek Fulton-to-Brady Roland aerial hookup. The latter duo had also collaborated on a 7-yard scoring toss in the first stanza, and Fulton hit Taylor Goebel with a 32-yard strike to provide the Vikings with their second six-pointer.
Joshua Hunter’s 3-yard reception delivered the Cougars’ other first-half points.
Two long possessions supplied payoffs for Grand View in the second half and essentially sealed the deal for it. The second of those lasted 15 plays, chewed up 95 yards and concluded with Dorian Ballentine’s 9-yard TD run. Nick DeBenedetti’s 35-yard reception on SXU’s behalf finished off the scoring.
The Vikings outgained the Cougars by more than 200 yards (581-354) and aided their cause by committing only one turnover. While Grand View had three backs rush for at least 60 yards, Rhode’s 30 yards paced SXU’s ground-gaining effort.
Stephen Simms (seven catches), DeBenedetti (four receptions, 99 yards) and Sean Jones (four catches) were Rhode’s favorite targets. Fulton, meanwhile, helped the Vikings pick up almost 300 yards through the air.
“They’re a spread team, so we needed to play a little nickel [defense] and we had to press guys into service because we came in a little depleted in the secondary,” Feminis said. “It probably wasn’t a good week to play them [because of that]. They converted some third-and-longs and took advantage of some things.”
Dave Marciano (five solo stops, nine assists, two quarterback hurries, one tackle for loss, fumble recovery), Matt Johnson (seven solos, two assists, one pass breakup), Tyler Hoeg (five solos, three assists, one pass breakup), Zach Dolph (eight assists, one-half tackle for loss) and Dan Fitzgerald (three solos, four assists) were the Cougars’ prevention-side notables. Before he left, Ghinazzi forced the fumble Marciano recovered, which interrupted Grand View’s opening series at the SXU 10.
Feminis was unhappy about Ghinazzi’s removal.
“I don’t like the [automatic ejection] rule [on helmet-to-helmet hits],” Feminis said. “A penalty, yes, but there was no intention to hurt the guy. But I know the officials are getting pressure from their bosses, and they’re just doing their job and trying to be as safe as possible.”
Grand View 14 21 7 6 - 48
St. Xavier 7 7 0 7 - 21
First downs 31 21
Yds. rushing 283 96
Yds. passing 298 258
Total yds. 581 354
Att./comp. 31-19 38-22
Fumbles/lost 1-1 2-1
Had intercepted 0 5
Penalties/yds. 10-85 6-60
Punts/avg. 5-32.4 4-34.0
GVU — Brady Roland, 7-yd. pass from Derek Fulton (Ben Hurley kick)
GVU — Taylor Goebel, 32-yd. pass from Fulton (Hurley kick)
SXU — John Rhode, 3-yd. run (Spencer Nolen kick)
GVU — Charles Badgett, 2-yd. run (Hurley kick)
GVU — Roland, 52-yd. pass from Fulton (Hurley kick)
SXU — Joshua Hunter, 3-yd. pass from Rhode (Nolen kick)
GVU — Dudley Bickham, 11-yd. interception return (Hurley kick)
GVU — Fulton, 7-yd. run (Hurley kick)
GVU — Dorian Ballentine, 9-yd. run (no conversion)
SXU — Nick DeBenedetti, 35-yd. pass from Rhode (Nolen kick)
St. Xavier Rushing: Rhode 8-30, Pesek 3-22, Ferguson 4-21, Hunter 7-18, Simms 1-5, Pondexter 1-1, DeBenedetti 1-0, Gill 1-(-1). Passing: Rhode 37-22-258, Feeney 1-0-0. Receiving: Simms 7-32, DeBenedetti 4-99, Jones 4-23, Vilimek 2-58, Carroll 2-27, Feeney 1-14, Hunter 1-3, Pesek 1-2.