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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, September 05, 2019 1:00 am

Saint Francis Breakdown

5 facts

• In the offseason, Saint Francis head coach Kevin Donley signed a contract extension that will keep him with the Cougars through 2023. He enters his 41st season as a collegiate coach, and his 326 wins rank No. 1 on the victories list among active coaches at any level.

• The Cougars have just four home games, the first not coming until Sept. 28. Lindenwood-Belleville was supposed to be USF's first home game Sept. 14, but the university shut down the program, and it was too late to schedule another game.

• USF returns its top six receiving targets. Seniors Rocky James and Dan Ricksy led the team in receiving yards, averaging 66.2 and 61.5 yards, respectively.

• USF opens its 22nd football season at No. 3 in the NAIA Coaches' Preseason Top 25 poll.

• The Cougars went 10-3 in 2018 and sport a 37-4 record over the past three seasons.

4 games to watch

Oct. 5 at Marian: The Cougars travel to Indianapolis to face the in-state rival this year. Marion starts the season No. 7 in the coaches preseason poll. The Knights and Cougars are tied with seven wins apiece in the season series, with Marian winning 37-28 in 2018.

Oct. 12 vs. Concordia (Mich.): Starting the season, Concordia comes in No. 6 in the coaches poll, its highest preseason ranking in history. The Cardinals won a program-best 10 games last year. One of those wins came against the Cougars in a 7-3 defensive battle.

Oct. 19 vs. Indiana Wesleyan: The basketball rivalry between the Wildcats and Cougars is spilling onto the football field. It's Indiana Wesleyan's second year as a program and first competing in the MSFA. The Wildcats finished 7-3 in its inaugural season.

Oct. 26 vs. Siena Heights: The Cougars have won four straight against the Saints, who open the season receiving votes in the coaches poll. Last year, Saint Francis won 22-19 in OT when Gavin Gardner kicked a game-winning 26-yard field goal.

3 key players

QB Matt Crable: The junior transfer took the reins last year after coming from Grand Valley State. He set a Saint Francis record for passing yards by a first-year player (2,783 yards) and touchdown passes (26). He was named to the MSFA Mideast League first team.

WR Duke Blackwell: The junior tore his ACL in the first half of the 2017 NAIA National Championship. He missed all last season rehabbing and now joins an already loaded receiving corps.

FS Blake Schumacher: The senior Carroll product was an All-MSFA first-team member in 2018. He was eighth on the team in tackles and recorded three interceptions.

2 points of concern

Midseason slump: The Cougars' season looked just about over after Week 6 last year. They dropped consecutive games to Marian and Concordia and nearly fell to Siena Heights the following week. Back-to-back losses in the middle of the season could once again be near disastrous in 2019.

Fresh-faced defense: The defense loses six starters. The offense may have to carry them early in the season, but with ranked opponents in Marian and Concordia in Weeks 4 and 5, they need to figure it out early.

1 major issue

Replacing Eric Dunten and Piercen Harnish: It's hard to replace the top two tacklers in USF history. Dunten and Harnish were staples on the 2016, 2017 NAIA national championship teams. The inside linebacker position will be young this year but not lacking. Expect this position to be more by committee. Sophomore Nick Lucas and junior Jamal Jackson should step up and fill some of the void.

– Elizabeth Wyman, The Journal Gazette

ewyman@jg.net