Wildcats fall to Saint Francis in national title game


Shelby Stephens

Saint Francis forces a Cornell Brown fumble in the fourth quarter of the national title game in Daytona Beach, Florida. The Cougars forced two Baker turnovers in their 38-17 win. Image by Shelby Stephens.

Story by Jim Joyner, Sports Editor

Baker’s run at its first national championship in program history ended on Saturday night in the NAIA-FCS championship game. The Saint Francis Cougars beat Baker 38-17 for their first national championship in program history after three failed trips in the title game from 2004 to 2006.

The Wildcats finish the season 14-1 and were the national runners-up for the second time in school history.

Baker’s slow start in the first half and Saint Francis wide receiver Seth Coate’s impressive performance throughout the title game proved to be the difference on Saturday night. Coate was the Offensive Player of the Game, grabbing nine passes for 180 yards and three game-changing touchdowns.

As the game came to a close, the Saint Francis fans stormed the field. Baker’s unblemished record was finally tainted and the Wildcats’ magical run was over.

NAIA National Player of the Year Logan Brettell led the BU offense and finished the game 34-for-50 for 263 passing yards and a touchdown. Cornell Brown rushed for 103 yards and a touchdown, while also catching 13 passes for 81 yards.

Baker opened the game with a 26-yard field goal by Clarence Clark, but the Cougars responded with a touchdown on their first drive. Baker had Saint Francis stalled with a fourth-and-inches at midfield, but a 45-yard run by fullback Jason Nicodemus set up a Saint Francis passing touchdown to Coate, who extended his streak of 27 straight games with a touchdown reception.

Saint Francis would tack on another field goal, following a three-and-out from Baker, and the Cougars led Baker 10-3 at the end of the first quarter.

The second quarter was filled with punts for both Saint Francis and Baker. Baker had a 38-yard pass to Ladai Shawn Boose called back on a holding penalty, which would have taken the Wildcats down to the goal line. Baker punted on four straight drives, but the Wildcat defense forced back-to-back punts from Saint Francis in the second quarter.

With 2:29 to play in the first half, Baker took over at its own 39 with a chance to tie the game with a touchdown. On third down Logan Brettell was sacked from behind and fumbled. Saint Francis recovered at the BU 39 and scored a rushing touchdown on the next play. With a 17-3 lead, Saint Francis seized the the momentum before the break.

Baker had one last chance to score before the break, but Clarence Clark’s 50-yard field goal was short of the crossbar in the final 30 seconds of the second quarter.

The Cougars’ defense posted a nearly-perfect first half. The Cougars held Baker to 132 yards in the first two quarters (40 rushing and 92 passing). Baker converted only one third down in eight tries.

The Baker defense came up big for Baker on the first two Saint Francis drives in the third quarter, forcing USF to two punts. On Baker’s second drive of the third quarter, the Wildcats converted two third downs and cut the lead to one possession on a touchdown pass to Damon Nolan. The Wildcats trailed 17-10, and their offense clicked for the first time since the opening drive of the game.

In the final minute of the third quarter, following a Baker three-and-out, Saint Francis quarterback Nick Ferrer found Coate, wide open, for a 59-yard touchdown to give the Cougars a 24-10 lead right before the start of the fourth quarter.

Coate didn’t need long to strike again against Baker on the Cougars’ next drive. He caught a 42-yard pass to get into Baker territory, then followed that play with a 36-yard touchdown over the top of the defense. The Cougars led 31-10.

Even though the Wildcats overcame a 17-point deficit and scored 21 points in the final five minutes of their semifinal win over Eastern Oregon, a comeback would be even more difficult against Saint Francis after Cornell Brown fumbled inside the USF 15-yard line with 10 minutes to play.

The Wildcats scored on a rushing touchdown by Cornell Brown with 3:39 to play in the game, but Saint Francis’ two-touchdown lead would be too much to overcome. After an unsuccessful onside kick attempt by Baker, the Cougars scored two plays later to take a 38-17 lead.

The Wildcats rallied into the red zone in the final minute of the game, but they turned the ball over on downs, ending any chance of a miracle. The celebration had begun on the Saint Francis sideline, while the Wildcats realized their eventual fate.

Cougar quarterback Nick Ferrer finished with 245 yards and three touchdowns and running back Justin Green rushed for 140 yards and a score.

Saint Francis outgained Baker 443-to-403 in total offense and also forced two Baker turnovers, while the Wildcats didn’t force a Cougar turnover in the game. Baker’s stretch of seven-straight possessions in the first half without a score proved to be the difference.

The best season in Baker football history came to a close on Saturday night, and now the Wildcats turn their attention to 2017 with three returning All-Americans.