SIOUX CITY, IOWA – The number 329 will go down in Morningside College lore.
Morningside College’s household passing combination of senior quarterback Trent Solsma(Dakota Dunes, S.D.) and senior wide receiver Connor Niles (Sioux City, Iowa) had increased their career connection total to 328 to the joy and delight of Mustang fans near and far by the latter stages of the 3:00 p.m. hour Saturday, Dec. 1. So, head coach Steve Ryan and his staff went back to the option on an overtime possession in the 2018 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics’ Championship Series semifinals.
As time seemingly stopped and breaths were collectively drawn among 2000 fans packed into Elwood Olsen Stadium on a snowy afternoon, Solsma took the snap, looked right and then left and sent a spiral to the left corner of the west end zone. Niles turned away from a University of St. Francis of Indiana defender and grabbed it tightly with two hands as he stepped inside the pylon, breaking back-to-back seasons of heartbreak against their current opponent and cinching the program’s first national championship berth since 2012 in the wake of a 34-28 victory.
“Honestly, I was fortunate to be able to be a part (of that play),” Niles, the game’s Offensive Player of the Game, remarked still holding on to the football as fans and friends high-fived and hugged their way to him and all of the Maroon-clad student-athletes and coaches gathered near midfield at game’s conclusion. “Our defense made so many great stands in the second half. When they held (St. Francis) on their overtime try and the kick was missed, the defensive coordinator looked at us and said we need to go out and score now.”
“You don’t get a lot of chances to try and do something three times … we talked about the fact we needed to cash in on this opportunity (against St. Francis),” he added. “I can’t ask for much more than this feeling.”
“We felt we had something (with that play),” Ryan noted. “We just had to block their defensive line who had been making things difficult. (Sophomore running back Arnijae) AP (Ponder of Omaha, Neb.) stepped up and created enough protection. Once that happened, Trent throwing to Connor was something obviously we were comfortable with.”
The 25-yard touchdown wrapped up a heart-stopping afternoon of drama. The Mustangs, as has been a trademark throughout 2018, jumped out quickly. After junior wide receiver Bo Els (Erie, Colo.) narrowly missed taking the opening kickoff to the house, Solsma hit Niles down the left side for a 50-yard touchdown just 14 seconds in. Holding number eight-ranked Cougars on their opening attempt, Solsma and company went back to work and found the end zone again with a 30-yard six-point connection to senior wide receiver Addison Ross (Carroll, Iowa) to make it 14-0. The two sides each added a touchdown later in the frame, with the Mustangs’ end zone appearance occurring on a 17-yard scamper by Ponder, for a 21-7 Mside lead at the end of 15 minutes.
The visitors, looking to add to their back-to-back national championship status, buckled down from that point. Riding a potent arm of their own in quarterback Matt Crable, the University of St. Francis answered with a 21-7 run of its own over the final three periods of regulation. Crable threw for two more touchdowns for three on the day, while Solsma and Niles were the order for the Maroon score. Between those four touchdowns, both sides were turned away by stubborn defensive units which included junior defensive back Deion Clayborne (Sioux City, Iowa) and Morningside.
“(Defensive coordinator Casey Jacobsen) kept telling us to just do our jobs knowing that our offense would get going again after the fast start,” Clayborne said. “We have one of the best in the country, so our defense needed to keep getting them chances.
“This is just a great feeling,” he added. “Being able to be a part of this especially for our seniors is awesome. They’ve been working their tails off, and it’s going to be great getting to go down to Florida with them and the rest of the team.”
Solsma, recording a staggering 27th straight contest with two-or-more touchdown passes, finished the afternoon with 306 hard-fought yards, the four scores and 28 completions among 57 attempts and two interceptions. Niles hauled in 161 yards and the three pay dirt stops, and Ponder recorded his ninth 100-yard-plus effort in the last 10 weeks with 147 yards on 22 battering ram carries with one touchdown included. The defensive digits were just as impressive, turning over the Cougars twice on fumbles and registering three sacks. Junior linebacker Chase Nelson (Beatrice, Neb.) topped the chart with nine tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss and one of the fumble recoveries. Clayborne picked up the other fumble recovery, and the Katzer connection of juniors Joel and Jacob of Wellsville, Kan., joined junior defensive back Klayton Nordeen (Alliance, Neb.) with eight tackles each.
The Mustangs and Benedictine College of Kansas meet in the 63rd NAIA championship game Saturday, Dec. 15, at Daytona Stadium in Daytona Beach, Fla.