By Rob Huizenga, Saint Xavier (Ill.) Sports Information Director
CHICAGO – A 13-yard touchdown grab in the end zone by redshirt freshman wide receiver Sean Jones gave No. 4 ranked Saint Xavier (Ill.) a 31-24 lead in overtime and the Cougars held on to defeat No. 2 ranked and defending NAIA national champion Marian (Ind.) in their season opener Saturday night at Bruce R. Deaton Memorial Field in Chicago. SXU got a huge sack by sophomore defensive end Paul Carey that forced a fumble on Marian’s overtime possession and ended the game when it was recovered by sophomore defensive end Nick Cemeno. Saint Xavier trailed early on in the game staring a 24-10 deficit in the face at halftime before scoring 21 unanswered points after the break to capture the thrilling rally victory. It was the first overtime game for the Cougars since the 2005 season and only the second in program history (2-0). SXU moves to 1-0 on the year, while Marian falls to 1-1.
The Cougar offense was led by fifth-year senior Joe Gill, who completed 31 of his 51 passes on the night for 303 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His favorite target was junior Nick DeBenedetti with eight receptions for 104 yards and the game-tying touchdown near the end of regulation. Senior running back Nick Pesek was tough on the ground for SXU leading the way with 13 carries for 37 yards and a touchdown. Defensively, senior linebacker Zach Dolph and junior linebacker Alex Walters each tallied 15 total tackles to lead the Cougars.
SXU came out of the gate strong scoring the game’s first touchdown in the opening minute when Pesek found the end zone from three yards out to cap a five-play, 69-yard drive. Marian tied things up at 7-7 later in the quarter when junior running back Tevin Lake slipped through the defense and rushed for a 17-yard rushing touchdown with 9:02 to go in the opening frame. An interception by Gill set up a one-play scoring drive for the Knights who scored on a 24-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wideout Anthony Jones Jr. Marian tacked three more points to its lead (17-10) with a 27-yard field goal by junior Martin Waddick with 2:10 left in the first quarter. With 9:39 remaining in the first half, senior Spencer Nolen (Columbia, Tenn./Nevada/UT-Chattanooga/Columbia Central) cut into the deficit with a 25-yard field goal for SXU to make it a 17-10 score.
However, Marian answered later in the second quarter with another touchdown by Lake, this one on a nine-yard run to put the visitors ahead, 24-10. Saint Xavier had a chance to chip into the lead before halftime, but a 39-yard field goal attempt by Nolen went wide left as time expired. Late in the third quarter, senior Dave Marciano punched in a touchdown from one yard out to close the gap to seven points, 24-17. SXU continued to put the pressure on Marian in the fourth quarter and got the game-tying score when Gill found DeBenedetti in the corner of the end zone with 2:51 to go in regulation. The Knights made things interesting in the closing seconds of regulation driving down to the SXU 33-yard line and taking a 50-yard field goal that fell short sending the game to overtime.
The Cougars got the first possession in overtime and on the third play of the series Gill found Jones in the corner of the end zone for the go-ahead score. Marian took control for its chance to tie or win the game, but on the third play of its drive, Carey got the sack on MU senior quarterback Joey Hecklinski forcing the fumble that ended the game. It was one of seven sacks on the day for the Cougar defense.
Saint Xavier (1-0 overall) faces another tough test on Saturday, September 14, when they head to Indianapolis to take on NCAA Division II power University of Indianapolis. The game is scheduled for a 6 p.m. (eastern) start at Key Stadium in Indianapolis.