ROME, Ga. - (Press Book | Live Stats) The 57th annual Russell Athletic-NAIA Football National Championship features a pair of newcomers looking to make program history when No. 3 Morningside (Iowa) and No. 5 Marian (Ind.) faceoff on Thursday in Rome, Ga. Kickoff from Barron Stadium is set for 6:35 p.m. EST and will be televised nationally on CBS Sports Network. The event is hosted by The Championship Foundation (Rome) for the fifth-straight year.
Morningside (13-0) enters Thursday as the only unbeaten team remaining in the NAIA and with a victory will become the first unbeaten team to win the championship since perennial power Carroll (Mont.) accomplished the feat in 2010. Head coach Steve Ryan, who is now in his 11th season at the helm of the Mustang football program, has guided Morningside to nine-straight NAIA Football Championship Series (FCS) appearances since taking over the program in 2002. Prior to Ryan, the Mustangs had posted 15-consecutive losing seasons.
"Our guys have worked hard this year," said Morningside head coach Steve Ryan. "We've worked hard many a year, and it's a great opportunity to be down here (Rome). I've heard so much about this event and we're looking forward to playing on Thursday."
Only the second Great Plains Athletic Conference team to appear in the title game since the league was established in 2000, the Mustangs showcase a talented defense that leads the NAIA in rushing defense per game (63.1) and scoring defense (11.9). Morningside has held opponents to seven-or-less points in eight games this season, including a streak of three-consecutive shutouts from Oct. 27 - Nov. 10. Defensive end Marcus Smith paces a defense that boasts 98.0 tackles-for-loss and 29 sacks with 14.0 tackles-for-loss and 6.5 sacks. Linebacker Aaron Roberg is the team's leading tackler with 115 (41 solo).
During the FCS, Morningside's defense is allowing an average of 32.7 points, 512.7 total yards, 129 rushing yards and 383.6 passing yards per game. However, the Mustangs have forced eight turnovers, including six interceptions.
Morningside's offense has been just as dominant as its defense, ranking in the top-10 nationally in seven different categories - scoring offense (591), passing offense (3,800), scoring offense per game (45.5), total offense per game (491.7), first downs per game (24.2), passing offense per game (292.3) and rushing offense (2,592).
Quarterback Joel Nixon, who had never played a down as a collegiate quarterback prior to this season, is the sparkplug for the Morningside offense. He ranks second in the NAIA in total offense (4,384) and total passing (3,614). Nixon also leads the team in rushing with 770 yards on 150 attempts this season. In the semifinals against defending national champion Saint Xavier, Nixon completed 22-of-34 pass attempts for 335 yards and four touchdowns, while also running for 32 yards and a score en route to winning his third-straight Outstanding Offensive Player of the Game award.
In only six years of existence, Marian (11-1) has become a powerhouse in NAIA football. The Knights were 1-9 in their inaugural season in 2007, but since then have recorded five-straight winning seasons under the direction of head coach Ted Karras, Jr. Marian has made three-straight FCS appearances. Last season, the top-ranked Knights fell in the semifinals against eventual national champion Saint Xavier (Ill.), 30-27.
"We have a visionary president, who started football six years ago," said Marian head coach Ted Karras. "Our guys have played with a sense of urgency since we started the program and it came together this year. We're extremely excited to be here (Rome) to compete for a national championship."
Marian is the second-consecutive team from the Mid-States Football Association Mideast League (MSFAE) to play for the title. Prior to Saint Xavier's victory last season, former NAIA member Findlay (Ohio) in 1997 was the last MSFAE representative to claim the top prize.
Similarly to Morningside, the Knights boast one of the NAIA's top defenses - ranking fourth in rushing defense per game (89.1) and 10th in total defense per game (279.3). Marian has held two of its three FCS opponents under 100 yards rushing, including a season-low 35-yard effort by No. 2 Missouri Valley on Dec. 1 - 141.2 yards below their season average entering the contest. Seth Vondersaar - one of the four Vondersaar brothers on the squad - leads in Knight defense in tackles (81) and tackles-for-loss (10.5).
Offensively, Marian is eighth in the NAIA in total passing (3,159) and total scoring (428). The Knights have scored at least 30 points in 10-of-12 games this season, including a season-high 49-point performance against Taylor (Ind.) on Oct. 6.
Quarterback Adam Wiese and running back Tevin Lake lead a balanced attack that averages 263.3 passing yards and 177.6 rushing yards per game. Wiese is one yard shy of 3,000 passing yards on the season and is completing 68.7 percent (255-of-371) of his throws. In three FCS games, Wiese has thrown for 848 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions. Meanwhile, Lake owns back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons, including 1,490 yards this season, which ranks third in the nation. He has eclipsed 100 yards in 8-of-10 games in 2012, including two-straight 135-plus yard efforts against No. 6 Saint Francis (Ind.) and Missouri Valley in the FCS.
Thursday's game between Morningside and Marian marks the first matchup between national championship rookies since former NAIA member Azusa Pacific (Calif.) played Olivet Nazarene (Ill.) in 1998. The game marks the first-ever meeting between the two sides. Morningside is 3-3 all-time against Mid-States Football Association opponents, while the Knights are 1-0 all-time against the Great Plains Athletic Conference.
National Championship Game Notes
• This is the fifth-straight year that Rome, Ga., has served as the host and the 45th different site for the Russell Athletic-NAIA Football National Championship. Thurs¬day's contest marks the first non-Saturday championship game, since the association returned to one division in 1997. The 6:35 p.m. EST kickoff will again showcase the lights and artificial turf installed prior to 2010.
• The average attendance in the last four years in Rome has been 5,854 fans. The highest attendance of 6,500 occurred in the 2008 event when Carroll (Mont.) and Sioux Falls (S.D.) squared off for the second-straight season. Sioux Falls avenged its 2007 loss to Carroll with a 23-7 win.
• Since moving to Rome in 2008, the average margin of victory is 6.5 points, includ¬ing a four-point win by Saint Xavier (Ill.) last season. Since the NAIA went to one division in 1997, the national championship average margin of victory is 10.1 points. Nine of those 15 contests were decided by eight points-or-less.
• There have been 10 national championship shutouts since the event began in 1956. The last shutout came in 2000 when Northwestern Oklahoma State blanked Georgetown (Ky.), 20-0. It is also the only shutout since the NAIA moved back to one division in 1997.
• Seven ties have occurred at the NAIA Football National Championship, including a 0-0 draw between Montana State and St. Joseph's (Ind.) in the event's inaugural game (1956). The last tie was a 21-21 stalemate between Central Washington and Findlay (Ohio) in the 1995 Division II title game.
• Both Morningside (Iowa) and Marian (Ind.) are appearing in their first-ever national championship. It's the first matchup between two national championship rookies since Azusa Pacific (Calif.) played Olivet Nazarene (Ill.) in 1998.
• No matter which team wins on Thursday, the victor will become the second-straight program to win a title in its first championship appearance. Prior to Saint Xavier last season, Azusa Pacific in 1998 was the most recent championship newcomer to win the title.
• Morningside and Marian entered the playoffs as the third and fifth ranked teams in the final regular season edition of the NAIA Football Coaches' Top 25 Poll, mark¬ing the second-straight year that the No. 1 team has failed to make the national championship game.
• The No. 3-ranked team entering the national championship stands with a 0-2 mark since 1999. Fifth-ranked clubs are 1-1, including Saint Xavier's win last season.
• The lower ranked program has won five of the last six national championships.
• A combined 870 points were scored through 14 Football Championship Series (FCS) games, including 524 points scored in the first round, which is the highest first round total since the NAIA went to one division in 1997.
• Bethel's (Tenn.) 45-44 first round victory over Georgetown (Ky.) marked the first time the top-ranked team in the final NAIA Football Coaches' Top 25 Poll has fallen in the first round of the Football Championship Series, dating back to 1999.
• Seven teams in this year's FCS have made at least 10 postseason appearances (including this year): Georgetown (18), Missouri Valley (10), Saint Francis (13), St. Ambrose (Iowa) (12), MidAmerica Nazarene (Kan.) (10), Baker (Kan.) (12) and Northwestern (Iowa) (16).
• There were nine repeat programs from the 2011 FCS First Round.
• Six-time NAIA national champion and FCS regular Carroll failed to make the field of 16 for the first time since the 1999 season. Thursday's national championship game will be only the third title match since 2002 that does not feature the Fighting Saints.
• The Mid-States Football Association Mideast Division (MSFAE) and the Heart of America Athletic Conference (HAAC) land the most squads in the 16-team field. The MSFAE was represented by Saint Xavier, Marian and Saint Francis. Competing out of the HAAC was Missouri Valley, MidAmerica Nazarene and Baker.
• Three teams finished the regular season with an undefeated record: Georgetown, Missouri Valley and Morningside.