For nearly a half Saturday night, a strong defensive effort and a ball control offense was enough to keep St. Xavier in the game against rival St. Francis (Ind.).

The first of two touchdown runs from Thornridge product Josh Hunter gave St. Xavier a 7-3 lead with 4:02 left before halftime.

Then the wheels came off.

St. Francis’ fourth-ranked Cougars scored 28 points in a 10-minute span over the end of the second quarter and start of the third and pulled away for a 45-20 win over No. 10 St. Xavier in a Mid-States Football Association crossover in Fort Wayne, Ind.

“We had to slow things down and try to shorten the game because we’re so depleted (due to injuries),” St. Xavier coach Mike Feminis said. “We were feeling really good about ourselves in the first half. They came out and scored on their first drive of the second half and we didn’t respond.”

St. Xavier (3-3) has lost back-to-back games for the first time since defeats to Wisconsin-Whitewater and St. Francis of Joliet on Sept. 5 and 11, 2008.

The Cougars likely will drop out of the NAIA top 10 for the first time since September 2009.

Quarterback David Yoder came off the bench for St. Francis (4-1) and ran for a 1-yard touchdown with 1:09 left in the first half. He then led his team on three touchdown drives in the first nine minutes of the second half.

A 2-yard TD run from Hunter (8 carries, 39 yards) brought St. Xavier to within 31-13 late in the third, but Yoder’s 75-yard scoring pass to Matt Noll with 10:05 left in the game erased any doubts about the outcome.

With quarterback John Rhode out with a separated shoulder, senior Joe Gill got the start for St. Xavier, which spent a lot of time running the wildcat with Robyn Pondexter (6 carries, 63 yards) at quarterback.

Gill finished 19-of-33 for 144 yards and a late 4-yard TD strike to Nick DeBenedetti.

Stephen Simms led St. Xavier on the ground with seven carries for 104 yards. Tyler Hoeg led the St. Xavier defense with eight tackles.

“What I told our guys is ‘Our playoffs start now,’ ” Feminis said. “We can’t afford to lose another one. We have to win out.”