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The Journal Gazette

  • Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette USF defensive back Wilmer Cole during practice at Bishop D'Arcy stadium on Tuesday.  

  • Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette Saint Francis defensive back Wilmer Cole returned an interception for a touchdown in last Saturday’s victory.

Friday, September 14, 2018 1:00 am

Meat of Cougars' schedule begins

1st up: High-scoring St. Ambrose brings 2-0 mark to D'Arcy

VICTORIA JACOBSEN | The Journal Gazette

With all due respect to Robert Morris and St. Francis of Illinois, Saint Francis coach Kevin Donley says the Cougars' gantlet really begins this week, when they play host to St. Ambrose.

The Fighting Bees are 2-0 and received several votes in this week's NAIA coaches' poll. On the following Saturdays, the No. 1 Cougars will travel to Chicago to play Saint Xavier, which is 1-2 but has been ranked as high as No. 6 this season, then return home to play rival Marian, which is ranked sixth. Dates against No. 8 Concordia and Siena Heights follow. 

“The competition, I think, gets tougher this week,” Donley said. “There's five weeks where you better be at your best.”

The final score from Saint Francis' victory in Joliet on Saturday, 49-19, suggests a runaway victory like the one over Robert Morris in the season opener, but the Cougars did not really break away until a big play by senior defensive back Wilmer Cole in the third quarter. 

The Saint Francis offense was stopped on the opening drive of the second half, and a touchdown pass from Aaron Ellis to Brandon Ruffin cut the Cougars' lead to 21-13. But Cole turned the tide when he intercepted a pass attempt by Ellis and returned it 21 yards for a touchdown. 

“In the second half, it was a little dry, a little slow, so we needed a big play out of somebody, anybody,” said Cole, who earned Mid-States Football Association Mideast League Defensive Player of the Week. “The No. 1 (receiver) came out, I was able to get hands on, and No. 2 ran a hitch route, so I was able to read both guys, and as soon as I got the pick I just ran it back for a touchdown.”

Through two games, the Saint Francis defense has given up just three touchdowns, two of them in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. 

“Last year we were kind of in the same boat, we had experience, but this year I feel like we're a very special unit, and we can keep these stats going throughout the year,” Cole said. “We're just sticking to our fundamentals rather than just jumping into the deep stuff, (sticking to) our schemes and stuff like that. Coming into camp and coming into the season we were just really focused on the fundamentals. And then the rest rolled up on itself.”

Donley noted that the senior leaders on this year's defense are not your typical “experienced” crew, as they played eight postseason games during the 2016 and 2017 NAIA Football Championship Series. 

“We have eight starters back from last year's defense to kind of anchor things, a lot of experience there,” Donley said. “Guys like (Eric) Dunten and (Piercen) Harnish, they've played (the equivalent of) three years in the last two seasons, so it's like they're in their fifth year of college competition because of all the football they've played.”

And Saint Francis might need all the extra experience Saturday. The Bees have won both of their games by at least 22 points, and quarterback Jake Romani has already passed for 540 yards and four touchdowns while the running game has put up 497 yards and six touchdowns. 

“They're always going to have great coaching,” Cole said of St. Ambrose, which lost 49-21 to the Cougars in 2017. “If we have a minor mistake on our defensive end, they're going to capitalize on it, whether that be a score or a first down.”

Donley said he believes the Bees have improved on defense since last season.

“They do a good job in coverage,” Donley said.”They have some good personnel – they have a 6-foot-7 defensive end (in Bernard Buhake). That'll be a real factor.”

Donley said St. Ambrose is a team that could get more attention if it continues to win – but he hopes that doesn't happen, at least not this Saturday. 

“They weren't mentioned at all preseason, and just to be 2-0 may not get them up there, but they did get votes,” Donley said. “So we hope to keep them out of that undefeated area. They're a good football team. I'm sure they're better than some of them that are ranked.”

vjacobsen@jg.net