ROME, Ga. – A couple of unbeaten teams play for the NAIA football championship on Saturday in a rematch of the title game two years ago.
The 53rd annual Russell Athletics-NAIA Football National Championship game between No. 1 Carroll College (Mont.) and No. 2 University of Sioux Falls (S.D.) kicks off at noon EST.
Two years ago, Carroll’s Fighting Saints took a 17-9 win over the Cougars of Sioux Falls in Savannah, Tenn., for their fifth national title in six years.
“We’re looking forward to it,” Carroll coach Mike Van Diest said. “Coach (Kalen) DeBoer is a class act. He’s one of the good guys in our profession and I’ve been amazed at the run his team has had in the last three or four years.”
DeBoer had similar words about Van Diest, the three-time NAIA Coach of the Year.
“He comments on how we’ve made a run the last three or four years — I think their run goes on about six or seven so it’s impressive what they have done,” DeBoer said.
The two teams have been treated to dinners from local churches and meals with former NCAA Division I coaches Fisher DeBerry and Ray Goff during their time in Rome, but they remained focused on the reason they traveled across the country.
Carroll has averaged more than 400 yards of offense a game this season while scoring 14 touchdowns rushing and another 23 passing.
Each team has had a bye week since the semifinals.
“For us, there’s no magic formula,” Van Diest said. “We’ve just been fortunate in a lot of those years that we haven’t had any injuries.”
This season, Carroll lost starting tailback Sean Herrin and two starting quarterbacks and is down to true freshman Matt Ritter, who started in a 38-37 win over Lindenwood two weeks ago.
“What has been so devastating this year is the type of injuries that we’ve had,” Van Diest said. “Everybody talks about how it’s great to have a bye week to heal up but our healing isn’t going to heal up until this spring.”
Sioux Falls is bringing a stout defense to Barron Stadium, led by longtime coordinator Chuck Morrell.
The Cougars have allowed only 144 yards and two touchdowns on the ground through 13 games and have held opponents to just over 100 yards rushing per game.
“I think it starts with great players, and when it comes to the players it’s their speed,” DeBoer said.
“We had more size last year. We have much more speed, especially on the defensive line, this year.”
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