CHICAGO – The Marian football came back from a 26-7 halftime deficit, but a late St. Xavier touchdown gave the Cougars a 32-27 win in the season opener for both teams Thursday night in Chicago, Illinois.
After a slow start for both teams, a Marian turnover led to the first score of the game. After the Knights’ defense forced a three-and-out, St. Xavier recovered a muffed punt to get the ball back. A 47-yard pass play highlighted the drive and an eight yard quarterback keeper from Justin Hunniford put six on the board for the Cougars. St. X went for two and failed, but the six-point lead held through the first quarter.
Marian attempted a field goal to start the second quarter, but it missed and kept the deficit at six. The Cougars capitalized once again, this time using a 78-yard pass play followed by another keeper from Hunniford to make it 13-0. The Knights broke through on the ensuing drive as a pair of newcomers put Marian on the board.
Facing a third down, Marian handed the ball off to Shakir Paschall and the big man rumbled for the first down to the SXU 12. Tristan Tonte then carried out of the ball from the Wildcat formation and the Warren Central product reversed field, spun through two defenders and scored the first points of the season for the Knights. Luke Frain‘s extra point brought Marian within six with 9:30 to play in the half.
Big pass plays continued to plague the Knight defense, however. Hunniford found Nick Czeszewski for a 37-yard catch and run on the following drive and capped it with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Drey Devereaux to make it 20-7. A field goal later in the quarter extended the lead to 16 and another 53-yarder gave St. X a 26-7 lead the half.
The Knights found their groove in the third quarter as the opening drive went down to the goal line, but Tonte was stopped on 4th-and-Goal and Marian came up empty after nine plays and 46 yards. Marian would not be denied later in the quarter. Luke Johnston completed a 10-play, 60-yard drive with a touchdown pass to Johnny William, which was the first of William’s career.
The defense awoke on the ensuing drive as St. X moved the ball downfield with another big pass play. However, on the following play, David Diehl forced a fumble and Nick Maines recovered the ball. Marian’s drive carried the game into the fourth quarter and Charles Salary scored his first touchdown of the season on a 13-yard run to make it 26-21 with 13:28 to play in the game.
The defense answered the call once again and it gave Marian the ball back with 10:15 to play. Johnston marched the Knights down the field on a long drive that took 15 plays, encompassed 85 yards and lasted 7:07. After SXU came up with multiple stops within the four-yard line, Johnston did it himself and scored the go-ahead touchdown on a one-yard run on fourth down. The two-point conversion was no good and St. X took the field with exactly three minutes to play.
Hunniford took the Cougars near midfield with a 13-yard run, but a 10-yard holding penalty moved St. X back to their own 35 with 2:24 to play. An 11-yard pass set up a 4th-and-9 and Hunniford found Chris Simmons for a 54-yard touchdown pass to give St. X the lead back with 1:28 to play. The two-point conversion failed and Marian took the field needing a touchdown to win the game.
The St. Xavier defense stepped up on the final drive, sacking Johnston three times and forcing a fumble on the third one. The Cougars recovered and took a knee to end the game and spoil the comeback by Marian.
Salary finished with 132 yards on the ground and a touchdown, while Maurice Woodard moved into fifth all-time on the Marian rushing list with 98 yards. Johnston finished 14-of-25 for 179 yards and a touchdown. Mykelti Armstrong led all Marian receivers with three catches for 64 yards. Diehl finished with eight total tackles, while Derrick Short had seven.
Marian is 0-1 on the season and will host Robert Morris in the 2017 home opener Sept. 9 at St. Vincent Field.