Arlington Park, Ill. – USF outscored the Eagles (5-2) 31-15 in the second half after trailing 14-7 at halftime.
Under a steel-gray sky and in southwest winds whipping Morris Field around 20 miles per hour, Lewis’ play was the cherry on top of a banana split overflowing with big plays for the Cougars. His first INT for a TD this season at 2:01 to play in the game followed by a Ryan Nix PAT finished the scoring and USF’s second win over an NAIA Top 25 team this season. Both wins have been against NAIA Top 10 teams.
Lewis’ INT was the second of two USF pick-6 plays, the first a 64-yard momentum changing return by Spencer Cowherd early in the third quarter. Cowherd’s second pick-6 this season gave the Cougars a 17-14 lead at the 8:19 point in the third quarter. Justin Green dashed to a 42-yard TD at 7:05 on USF’s second possession of the third quarter and in less than eight minutes, USF had turned a seven-point deficit into a 10-point advantage at 24-14. USF cut the halftime deficit to four when Nix finished off the Cougars’ first possession of the third quarter with a 21-yard field goal, his sixth this season and 15th of his USF career with 12:46 to play in the quarter. Seth Coate set up the field goal when he snared a Nick Ferrer pass for 55-yards.
“I am just so thankful I was in then because I was a little dizzy, didn’t know if I was gonna play anymore,” Lewis said. “I was like if he throws it, I’m gonna break on the ball and he did. It’s just amazing. It was money, payday.”
It was also a record — USF’s sixth INT for a score breaking the record of five set in 2008.
“Relentless. We knew it wasn’t gonna be easy. We knew it was gonna be a dogfight and we stuck in there and had a lot of guys make big plays,” Lewis added. “I am just so happy to be a part of this. Just great win overall.”
Cowherd, who had a INT TD at Marian for 27 yards, had to sit out the first half, a penalty for getting ejected for an illegal hit against Concordia last Saturday.
“I couldn’t wait to get in,” Cowherd related. “It hurt not being able to play the first half. I just wanted to make an impact. I don’t know what happened. It’s like God has blessed me so much. I dropped back in the zone and see the ball is in my hands. God just blessed me.”
Cowherd took off “running for my life because I thought somebody was going to catch me,” he said smiling. “I looked around to see if anybody was around me and the next thing I know I’m in the end zone. I just wanted to be a spark. It’s a great feeling.”
A bad snap on a punt attempt got the Eagles a safety and Raheem Gardner scored a 2-yard TDird quarter, but the USF repulsed a Gardner rush attempting a two-point conversion to preserve a 24-22 USF lead.
“First of all, I don’t think I’ve ever run that fast,” Smith admitted. “It came at a crucial moment. The line gave Nick plenty of time to throw and I got some downfield blocks. Everything just worked out there. I was tryin’ to plan what I was gonna do. Maybe dive. But as I got closer to the end zone they got farther away and then I was in.”
“This puts us in good position to get a high seed and homefield advantage in the playoffs. That’s what made this win so important against a top-ranked opponent,” Smith continued.
“It was a shallow route,” Ferrer observed afterwards. “I saw him open up and got him the ball and he did the rest. I’m just trying to get the ball in the hands of the playmakers. I just thought Go, Go!”
Ferrer said halftime adjustments were important.
“We were able to come out and run the ball, relaxed, and we got a better mix of run and pass in the second half,” Ferrer said. “We got some protection and what we do in the passing game ironed out. They were playing passive trying to stop our passing game, and that opened some things up for the running game and we took advantage of the openings.”
Montre Lee hauled down a 35-yard pass from Byron Dawkins at 10:44 and Brian Franklin’s PAT drew RMU back with two points, 31-29. Neither team scored again until Lewis’ intercepted Dawkins for the TD. But there was no shortage of action in between TDs. On RMU’s next possession, USF halted the drive at the USF 41 when LB Matt Muncy hurried Dawkins into a bad pass.
Piercen Harnish intercepted a Dawkins pass to choke off RMU’s second possession in the final 15 minutes ripping the ball away from Tyler Warden. And RMU’s third possession of the fourth quarter started deep in Eagles’ territory when Josh Spitnale dropped 40-yard punt at the RMU 4-yard line setting up the Lewis’ interception.
Green finished with 140 yards rushing on 19 attempts outrushing the MSFA’s leading rusher, Gardner, who entered the game averaging 102.8 yards per game. Gardner finished with 117 yards on 32 carries. Green’s total was a season and career high for the redshirt-freshman. He finished with 160 all-purpose yards adding a 20-yard pass reception. Coate finished with five receptions for 142 yards including USF’s first TD — a 41-yard pass from Ferrer at 5:05 in the first quarter. Smith had three receptions for 54-yards. Ferrer finished 11-for-24 with one interception. He threw for 237 yards. He was sacked six times.
Besides the three crucial interceptions, USF got a big sack from Lucas Sparks for a 7-yard loss. Eric Hemmelgarn had 2.5 tackles for loss (7 yards) and Christian Johnson had 2 TFLs for 11 yards in losses. Harnish led USF tacklers with 13 total, six solo. Sparks added eight total, four solo while Matt Muncy and Jalen McIntyre had six tackles apiece, three solo each. Sparks and Muncy both had QB hurries.
“We dedicated 30 minutes of hard football to Coach D (Donley),” Ferrer revealed. Boy, did they ever.