Less than four minutes remained in the game when a couple of Saint Francis workers carried a long, white folding table into Saturday’s sunlight and placed it upright between the Cougars’ bench and the stands full of eager fans ready to party.
The table was to be used in the postgame celebration/coronation of Kevin Donley, the silver-haired architect of the Saint Francis program, who seemingly was about to become the winningest football coach in NAIA history with 256 career victories, and just moments away from 257.
Strange thing about that table, now bare and unattended as the clock showed zeroes and the scoreboard revealed the stunning reality of Saint Ambrose 15, Saint Francis 14: It looked more suited for a postmortem than postgame revelry.
Many on the Cougars’ sideline preened enthusiastically immediately following the 70-yard touchdown play between quarterback Wes Hunsucker and Austin Coleman that put Saint Francis ahead 14-7 with 7:47 remaining in the game.
When we went up, people started to get real comfortable, said running back Antoin Campbell, who ran for 121 yards and a first-half touchdown. We didn’t execute. We didn’t keep the pedal to the floor like we’ve been doing the last two weeks.
Of course, there was ample time for a response from the visiting Bees of Davenport, Iowa.
But the mountain of momentum seemed impossible to scale, even for 20th-ranked Saint Ambrose, which hadn’t beaten Saint Francis in its previous seven attempts. Why start now, and spoil the moment?
But here’s how the day, the game, the impending record – and eventually the table – all unfolded:
Twice, the Saint Francis offense had a chance to put the game away.
After what appeared to be a killer Bees fumble on its first play after the USF touchdown, Saint Francis burned nearly three minutes off the clock, capped by a blocked 34-yard field goal.
Saint Ambrose got the ball back and surrendered it on downs at its own 23-yard line with 3:22 remaining.
But the Cougars sat on the ball like a proud hen, allowing Saint Ambrose one final possession – once again on its 23, with 2:52 remaining.
This time, Saint Ambrose answered with three consecutive passes from quarterback Eric Williamson. The first was a 50-yarder down the heart of the field and into zone coverage that got the Bees to the USF 15. The second was a 15-yard touchdown pass to Zach Grant that put Saint Ambrose within a point with 1:45 left. And the third was the coup de grace two-point conversion to tight end Mitch Overstreet.
We’ve played a lot of tight ballgames with these guys in the past, and I kind of made my mind up as we were driving that, boy, if we score, we’re going to go for two, Saint Ambrose coach Mike Magistrelli said. We didn’t want to stretch the game out any further. I had confidence in our offense, and it felt like the right call.
Donley had his moment of woulda and coulda and shoulda.
If there’s anything, I blame myself for not being aggressive and throwing the ball into the end zone down here, he said, nodding toward the end of the field where the Cougars’ last drive died.
We’re up 14-7. You want to keep the clock running, and that’s what I was trying to do.
So carry the table back inside for another game, another day.
It didn’t (happen), Donley said of breaking the record. It will someday; not today.