It was a grind-it-out kind of day for St. Ambrose.
Facing one of the top running backs in the country, the Fighting Bees controlled the line of scrimmage on their way to a 17-7 win over St. Francis (Ill.), a score that belied just how dominant St. Ambrose was in its final game of the year at Brady Street Stadium.
With the exception of two drives — a 74-yard one to open the game and an 84-yard scoring drive in the third quarter — the St. Ambrose defense held the Saints to 112 yards of offense. The Bees (4-4, 4-1) remain one game back of Saint Xavier for the conference title with one game left on the season.
"Once we settled into our groove and saw what they were doing, we just kept our assignments and played a pretty good ballgame," senior defensive end Ryan Zitkus said. "We didn't really make any adjustments, just the play-calling was a little different.
"I think we switched to playing our kind of football, black and blue."
It was a combined effort on defense against one of the top rushing attacks in the nation. The Saints entered Saturday ninth in the country with 237.4 rushing yards per game. Zitkus had 10 tackles, 1.5 for loss, while defensive back Jeremiah Jackson added 12 tackles and defensive end Bernard Buhake had 11 tackles, three for loss.
The Bees combined for 15 tackles for loss, preventing the Saints (3-7, 2-3) from ever really finding their footing, finishing with 171 rushing yards and just a 3.5-per carry average.
Offensively, St. Ambrose finished with 302 yards, 192 coming on the ground, as Brandon Baalman led the way with 101 yards on 19 carries.
"Up front, I think we controlled the line of scrimmage in the first half on both sides of the ball," senior offensive lineman Zach Gadbury said. "I think we have one of the best defenses in the MSFA and we rely on them week in and week out and that's our culture as a football team.
"It's been an up-and-down year, but we've got some of the toughest kids on this team and this is probably one of the toughest teams I've played on."
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For a while, it looked like it would be a game of missed opportunities for the Bees. St. Ambrose's first drive of the game reached the USF 7, but a 24-yard field goal was blocked by Rio Strama.
After Jackson forced a fumble, ending the Saints' 74-yard opening drive, St. Ambrose once again drove down inside the red zone to the 13 before turning the ball over on downs.
The Bees capitalized on their next two trips inside the USF 20 with a field goal and a 14-yard touchdown pass from Declan McDonald to Matthew Coovert as St. Ambrose took a 10-0 lead into halftime.
It's been a tough year for the St. Ambrose receiving corps, with injuries at the quarterback position limiting their usage. They were utilized well Saturday as McDonald threw for 110 yards and two touchdowns.
Coovert led all receivers with six catches for 71 yards after entering the day with just three catches for 38 yards on the season.
"It kind of proves that if you put your work in over the four years, it pays off and that's a testament to this group and how much adversity we've had," Coovert said. "A big shout out to Declan, a true freshman quarterback helping us seniors out and walking us out with a victory is awesome so a lot of credit to him."
St. Francis cut the lead to 10-7 with an 11-yard touchdown run from quarterback Major Dedmond with 3 minutes, 34 seconds left in the third quarter. St. Ambrose responded two drives later as McDonald found Vince Vignali for a 4-yard touchdown that put the game away.
"Time and time again, we just kept making stops, or making plays and it was a number of different guys, which was awesome," head coach Mike Magistrelli said. "I thought this may be a back-and-forth type thing but outside of that first drive, we really played extremely well."
Even though they didn't win a conference title or see a playoff berth over the course of their careers, this was a satisfying way for the 15 seniors to finish out the final home game of their careers.
"It means a lot," said Zitkus, who transferred from Illinois State last season. "Ever since I transferred in here, everybody's been so welcoming. It's a little emotional for me because it feels like today, I'm leaving somewhere I've been for four years even though I've only been here a year-and-a-half. I love this university, I love this football team, I love my brothers out there and it means a ton.
"The season might not have went as we expected, but it's ending how we expected."