Baker-Saint Francis national championship preview


Shelby Stephens

Baker takes the field before its first NAIA-FCS semifinals since 1993. The Wildcats beat Eastern Oregon 45-41 and advanced to their first title game since 1986. Image by Shelby Stephens.

Story by Jim Joyner, Sports Editor

For the first time in 30 years, the Baker Wildcats football team will be playing in the NAIA-FCS title game. Baker will play the University of Saint Francis at 6 p.m. on Dec. 17 in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The Wildcats are a perfect 14-0 on the season after rallying from a 17-point deficit in the semifinals against Eastern Oregon on Dec. 3. This is Baker’s second title game appearance in school history.

The University of Saint Francis Cougars are one of the most successful football teams at the NAIA level. The Cougars have won 23 of their last 25 games and have reached the title game four times since 2004, losing the three other times.

The No. 4 Cougars play in the Mid-States Mideast Conference and are 12-1 on the season. Saint Francis enters the title game on an eight-game winning streak after losing on Oct. 1 to No. 1 Marian at home. Saint Francis’ run to the title game began with a 79-20 win over one of Baker’s Heart of America Athletic Conference rivals, Missouri Valley. The Cougars then rallied to beat Morningside 42-35 in the quarterfinals after trailing 20-7 in the second quarter.

In the semifinals Saint Francis went on the road to take on the No. 3 Reinhardt Eagles in Waleska, Georgia. Reinhardt entered the game undefeated and had not lost since losing to Saint Francis in the first round of the 2015 playoffs. Saint Francis won 42-24.

In 2015 the Cougars started the season with a perfect 11-0 record before losing to eventual champion and conference rival Marian in the NAIA-FCS semifinals.

Baker and Saint Francis last met in the first round of the 2012 playoffs in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Saint Francis won 22-17, even though the Wildcats outgained USF 357-278. The game featured a combined 25 penalties for 240 yards.

Saint Francis’ junior quarterback NickFerrer is No. 1 in the Mid-States Mideast Conference in total offense per game and has passed for 3,801 yards, 48 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. Ferrer’s 48 passing touchdowns are second to Logan Brettell’s NAIA-leading 51 touchdowns through the air.

The Cougars’ sophomore running back, Justin Green, is 11th in the NAIA in rushing yards with 1,227. Green is averaging 7.7 yards per carry and has rushed for 11 touchdowns this season.

USF is led by head coach Kevin Donley, the NAIA’s all-time leader in wins (301) and the only coach to cross the 300-win threshold. Donley is in his 19th season at Saint Francis, and the Cougars have played in eight semifinal games during his tenure, including a stretch of six-straight semifinals.

Both Baker and Saint Francis have dominant passing offenses, ranking in the top five in the NAIA (Baker No. 1, USF No. 3). Saint Francis is allowing 18.5 points per game, ranked sixth in the NAIA, and Baker is allowing 20.5 points per game, 14th. Baker is first in the NAIA in turnover margin with a +25 differential, despite not forcing a turnover in its semifinal win.

Logan Brettell is now Baker’s all-time leader in passing touchdowns with 62, passing assistant coach Jake Morse in Saturday’s semifinal win. Clarence Clark, who caught eight passes for 217 yards and two touchdowns, was four yards shy of Baker’s single-game receiving record.

In his 13th season as head coach at Baker, Mike Grossner is making his deepest run in the playoffs. Before coming to Baker, Grossner coached Glendale Community College to a junior college national championship in 2000.

Baker has never won a national championship in a team sport, although the women’s basketball team came close in March against MidAmerica Nazarene in the title game.

With a Baker win, the school with the second-most wins in NAIA football history will final have its first national championship.