CHICAGO, Ill. — This time Ryan Johnson answered the call for ‘Game Changer’ in No. 1 University of Saint Francis’ 27-19 nerve-wracking win at No. 20 St. Xavier University on the first day of fall 2018.

The home Cougars roared back from a 21-3 deficit to within five, 21-16, before Johnson’s first interception of the season. He plucked the pass that had been deflected high into the and dashed 31 yards for the touchdown. Gavin Gardner missed the extra point, his second try after a holding penalty pushed him back 10 yards forcing a second attempt after the first attempt was good. Fortunately, it didn’t come into play at the end.

Johnson’s TD gave USF breathing room with a 27-16 lead and all the home Cougars managed was a 44-yard field goal. That was a big ‘W’ for the USF defense after SXU had the ball for 3:11. SXU attempted an onside kick after the field goal, but it was just a flare that Marcus Stepp fair caught at the USF 49-yard line with 2:47 left to play. SXU held USF to a quick 3-and-out, but after 10 plays and just 34 yards, Mitchel Thornbury and Jordan Maysacked the SXU quarterback for an 11-yard loss on fourth down.

“We didn’t play our best, but we fought through adversity and got the win,” USF Head Coach Kevin Donley said after getting career win No. 320. “We needed this, a tough, determined opponent on the road in front of a hostile homecoming crowd. Winning games like this one is what gets you ready for what’s to come.”

Like No. 6 Marian University next Saturday at 6 p.m.

After a scorless first quarter, PJ Dean put the Cougars in front with a 1-yard plunge for a 7-0 lead after Gardner’s PAT that capped an 11-play, 80-yard drive that concluded at 6:30.

SXU kicker Mike Iturbe’s 36-yard field goal made it 7-3, but after a Marcus Stepp fumble recovery, QB Matt Crable flipped a short pass to Nick Brickens, who plowed in from the USF 10-yard line. Then USF took its first possession in the third quarter and Crable scored on a two-yard run for a 21-3 USF lead capping a 13-play, 76-yard drive.

USF got the ball back and drove toward a blowout TD, but a penalty pushed them back and Joe Knepper‘s pooch punt was downed at the SXU two-yard line. On third-and-10 from from its two, SXU produced the longest TD pass by a USF opponent when Justin Hunniford connected with Elliott Pipkin for a 98-yard TD, the longest scoring play against USF.

Then Knepper had his punt blocked and Steven Meyer scooped it up and scored a 12-yard TD. Mike Iturbe’s PAT bounced off the right upright leaving USF with a 21-15 lead.

Johnson made his play on third-and-5 for SXU at the SXU 30.

“It did seem like it took forever to get the ball, but thankfully it came right into my arms,” Johnson recalled. He dashed into the end zone to the delight of the USF sideline and more than 300 USF fans who made the trip to Chicago for the Top 25 clash.

Along with Johnson’s interception, the other big news for the defense was Piercen Harnishmoving to the top of the USF career tackles list with his 14 tackles. Harnish passed Brian Kurtz, who completed his career (2003-06) with 393. Jalen Moss had 13 tackles along with Eric Dunten. Harnish and Moss finished with 10 solo tackles apiece.

While Justin Green missed his second consecutive game with an injury, Dean registered his second consecutive 100-plus yard rushingdgame finishing with 12. 8 yards on 31 carries, an average of 4.1.

Matt Crable finished with one TD pass while connecting on 16-of-30 passes for 158 yards. Rocky James had eight receptions for 59 yards.

27th consecutive win for NAIA No. 1 USF Cougars. . . Harnish 14 tackles to set USF career record with 398 to pass Brian Kurtz (2003-06), who set the record with 393 at USF. . . 320th career win for Kevin Donley in 40th season as head coach . . . USF 18th consecutive win when ranked No. 1 . . . 8th consecutive win on the road for USF when ranked No. 1 . . . 9th consecutive win when ranked No. 1 and playing a ranked win. . . USF is 12-1 as No. 1 playing a Top 25 opponent . . . USF 10-5 in series with SXU . . . 3rd consecutive game USF has scored at TD off a pick-6 when Ryan Johnson did it in the 4th quarter . . .