SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Even though the game was played in the middle of the day, the stars shined brightly for the Morningside College football team Saturday.
Morningside’s All-America passing combination of Trent Solsma and Connor Niles clicked early and often in a 49-20 victory over Rocky Mountain College at chilly Olsen Stadium.
The former high school teammates connected for three first-quarter touchdowns as the Mustangs won their seventh consecutive first-round NAIA playoff game.
Top-ranked Morningside, now 12-0, advanced to its 13th quarterfinal in the last 15 seasons and will play another home game next Saturday.
The No. 16 ranked Battlin' Bears, champions of the Frontier Conference, finish 8-4. It was their first playoff game since 2013, a 40-21 loss to the Mustangs.
"They've won a lot of games," said Rocky coach Jason Petrino during phone call with 406mtsports.com. "Coach (Steven) Ryan has created a championship culture there."
Rocky won its first Frontier Conference title since 1999. The Battlin' Bears were making their fourth appearance in the postseason.
"We had great leadership and a group that believed in what we're trying to do," said Petrino, who loses 25 seniors off this year's team. "We just had great kids. They worked hard and whatever you asked, they were willing to do.
"I'm extremely proud of this team. The seniors are going out Frontier Conference champions."
Solsma threw for four touchdowns and ran for another, completing 28 of 38 passes for 368 yards. Niles had 13 catches for 190 yards and three touchdowns.
The duo hooked up for scoring plays of 28, 46 and 12 yards in the first quarter, staking the Mustangs to a 21-0 lead they never relinquished.
“Coach (Lucas) Lueders and coach (Steve) Ryan came up with a great game plan,” said Solsma. “We saw some things on film we thought we could expose and Connor was just running great routes early on, making plays all day and making my life a lot easier.
“We started off really fast then kind of drifted a little bit in the second but it was really good to see how we came out in the third quarter. We didn’t really do anything different, we just had to slow ourselves down and regroup a little bit. It was more of just focusing on things that we could do as opposed to what they were doing.”
Rocky accounted for the only points of the second quarter on a 2-yard touchdown run by Mason Melby with less than two minutes remaining before halftime.
"We couldn't get anything going offensively early," Petrino said. "In the first half our defense battled hard to keep us in it."
The Battlin’ Bears, however, lost starting quarterback Jacob Bakken — who ranked second behind Solsma in most national passing statistics — to an injury early in the quarter. Drew Korf played the rest of the game, engineering three scoring drives while passing for 250 yards and two touchdowns.
Leading 21-6 at intermission, the Mustangs picked up the pace again at the start of the second half. They scored on their first two possessions and added another touchdown before the third quarter ended.
“We just kind of talked through some pass things that we could do and felt we had a picture of the things that could work in terms of the running game,” Morningside coach Steve Ryan said. “I think that kind of made a difference for us (in the third quarter).”
Solsma scored on a 6-yard quarterback keeper less than a minute into the second half, while Arnijae Ponder added touchdown runs of 19 and 2 yards. Ponder rushed for a game-high 131 yards on 21 carries, his eighth 100-plus yard performance of the season.
"You're down by two touchdowns at halftime and they come out and all of a sudden you're down by four. It's an uphill battle," Petrino said.
Bo Els was on the receiving end of Solsma’s fourth touchdown pass of the game. The speedy Els did most of the work himself, breaking loose down the sideline after hauling in a short pass early in the fourth quarter.
To the Battlin' Bears' credit, they kept battling in the frigid conditions, with Korf throwing touchdown passes to Max Gray and Darneail Jenkins in the fourth quarter.
Korf and Bakken combined to launch 66 passes and Gray finished with nine catches for 123 yards.
However, the Battlin’ Bears were held to 22 rushing yards on 28 carries.
“I think their offense was rated second to us in almost everything so we knew we had to step our game up and that’s exactly what we did,” Morningside linebacker Chase Nelson said. “We have playmakers on each level of the defense so they definitely stepped up. Klayton Nordeen had a really good game at safety and the ‘D’ line is always having a great game.”
Morningside, by virtue of drawing the overall No. 1 seed, will have home field advantage through the semifinal round if it keeps winning.