Six years later, Morningside (Iowa) lands the 'knock-out shot'
By Pete Scantlebury, NAIA Manager of Athletics Communications
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In a moment of prescience that only a veteran coach can provide, Morningside (Iowa) head coach Steve Ryan's pre-game advice to his players came to fruition.
"At some point, it takes a knock-out shot to win the game," Ryan said on Thursday. "You've got to be prepared for that. You've got to be prepared to play it all the way through, because they're going to."
After losing in overtime in their first NAIA championship game appearance in 2012, Morningside played this one all the way through. The Mustangs (15-0) overcame their first halftime deficit of the year to defeat Benedictine (Kan.) 35-28 on Saturday night in Daytona Beach.
"We remained pretty calm," quarterback Trent Solsma said. "We kind of shot ourselves in the foot, especially throwing those two interceptions, especially the one by the redzone. It was no different than any other halftime.
"We just stayed the course."
That knock-out shot that Ryan alluded to was more than one, in reality. It looked like it would be a flurry of shots to start the second half, allowing Solsma to overcome an uncharacteristically shaky first-half performance to turn a six-point deficit into an eight-point lead.
On the second play from scrimmage to start the second half, Solsma connected with receiver Connor Niles on an 80-yard touchdown. On the Mustangs' next drive, Solsma connected with tight end Reid Jurgensmeier for a 19-yard touchdown to increase the lead to eight points.
"Get that one score and we won't give it up," Niles remembered his defensive teammates saying at halftime.
But Benedictine (13-2) – putting together a championship effort in every area save the scoreboard – answered Morningside punch-for-punch all night. In the fourth quarter, taking over at their own 38 after a failed fourth-down conversion by Morningside, quarterback Shaefer Schuetz led the Ravens on a 10-play, 62-yard drive. It culminated in a one-yard touchdown run by Frank Trent – his first of the year – and an unbelievable two-point conversion catch by Alex Blake tied the game at 28 with 5:49 remaining.
"To get the score, which was not easily done, then get the two-point conversion on a bang-bang play," Benedictine coach Larry Wilcox said, "it looked like it could be a situation where we could come away with a win tonight."
Punch, counterpunch. The knockout blow hadn't landed yet, for either team.
Yet the opportunity came for Ryan's Mustangs, after a botched snap on a Benedictine punt attempt gave Morningside the ball at the Ravens' 18 with 2:20 remaining in the game.
Morningside was already in field-goal range. But this was a moment Ryan had seen before. This was the chance to land the knock-out shot.
"We felt we could kick a field goal to win," Ryan said. "I just said, 'No.' If we had a chance to score a touchdown, we're going to score a touchdown."
On third and eight, Solsma found Niles, his friend and favorite target, near the middle of the field for a 16-yard touchdown. It put the bow on a seven-catch, 163-yard, three-touchdown night for Niles, who was the game’s most outstanding offensive player.
It was a similar moment to two weeks ago, when Solsma connected with Niles to beat Saint Francis (Ind.) in overtime in the semifinals.
"Way better than last week's," Niles said, to laughter. "A little bit of the same. I caught that ball and I saw the ref throw it up, all I could really do is kneel right there."
"They played man-free and they stuck the safety right over Connor," Solsma said. "Honestly, I was going to go to him the whole way because he just always finds a way to win, always finds a way to get open and if you put the ball out there, he's going to make a play.
"Especially in a big-time situation like that. He just did what he does."
"The only reason he isn't the national player of the year is (because of) the kid throwing him the ball to him," Ryan said.
Solsma finished 19-of-36 for 292 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions.
Making good on that halftime promise, Morningside's defense was handed the lead. This time, it didn't relinquish it. A fourth-down stop gave the ball back to the Mustangs.
A championship, six years in the making, clinched.
"We responded really well," Ryan said. "We struggled throughout the second quarter, offensively. We struggled at stretches in the second-half.
"Guys kept believing, kept playing. Got a fortunate break, and we stuck it in the endzone. Big time."