St. Ambrose showed flashes of potential Saturday.
But the difference between being ranked 23rd and ranked No. 1 was clear by the end of the afternoon.
The 23rd-ranked Fighting Bees fell to top-ranked and defending NAIA champion Saint Francis (Ind.) 49-21 at Brady Street Stadium, allowing the game's final 21 points.
"They are the pinnacle. They are the best team in the country for a reason," head coach Mike Magistrelli said. "I think there's a lot of good to pull out of this game but we're not there yet. We're not with the elites yet, and there's a long way to go and work to do."
St. Ambrose knew it had to play close to a perfect football game if it wanted to pull the upset. The Bees had just too many mistakes, perhaps none bigger than late in the second quarter.
St. Ambrose lineman Chris Overton had just stripped Saint Francis quarterback Nick Ferrer – the first sack allowed by the Cougars this season – giving the Bees the ball with just over a minute left, trailing 28-21.
However, running back Justice O’Conner fumbled the ball two plays later and Saint Francis hit on a 35-yard touchdown pass on its first play of the next drive to take a 35-21 lead into halftime.
"Nobody feels worse than Justice, who is fighting for extra yards, but you just cannot fumble in that situation," Magistrelli said. "We knew during the week that we were really going to have to limit our mistakes and turnovers ... and you saw instantly how it came back to bite us."
The Cougars (3-0) out-gained the Bees 278-103 in the second half.
Still, St. Ambrose (2-1) had one chance in the fourth quarter to try and get back in the ball game, trailing 42-21. The Bees drove down inside the Cougars 20-yard line, but Romani was stopped short on fourth and 1. The Cougars scored another touchdown to put the game away.
Despite the loss, there were some positives on the day for the Bees.
The St. Ambrose defense sacked Ferrer twice and Tanner Champley scored three touchdowns out of the Wildcat formation.
"Just found out what we're all made of," Champley said. "I think we held up through the first half, at least. There was a big change in the game there with that turnover going into the second half.
"We've just got to get better. We weren't all there today against this team and against the No. 1 team in the nation. They're going to be crisp, they're going to be sound and you've got to play perfect whenever you play against these teams."
The Cougars piled up 686 total yards, led mainly by Ferrer, who threw for 508 yards and six touchdowns -- four to Dan Ricksy.
St. Ambrose was hamstrung in the second half, missing its starting cornerback Kobe Easley and linebacker Jimmy Morrissey for much of the half.
Jake Platt led the team with 12 tackles, but thinks this experience can benefit the team moving forward.
"It's just knowing our worth," Platt said. "We've got a lot of talent out here and a lot of young guys who are just itching to play football and loving the sport.
"We're pretty tight as a group, a pretty good brotherhood, and if we keep going into practice like we're playing the No. 1 team in the country, that's going to benefit us in the long run."