HOLY DEFENSE, BATMAN! Two of the nation’s top defenses will meet on Saturday in the quarterfinal round of the NAIA Championship Series. Both defenses have been ranked in the top five all season in the “Scoring Defense/Game” and “Total Defense/Game” categories. Morningside dominated Dickinson State in the first round while MNU needed all 60 minutes to top Georgetown College. The Pioneers have played pretty good football at home and may have had a wakeup call against the Tigers. Can either of these two offenses muster up much production in this game or could this one come down to special teams?
Here is a look at the matchup position-by-position:
Mike McNulty has proven to be a very good running back this season. In the first round game he carried the ball for 150 yards on 36 carries. Every team would like to have a reliable back like McNulty that can take some pressure off the passing game. If he can be successful against MNU then it will take pressure off a young quarterback. McNulty has been a work horse this season for the Mustangs with 252 rushing attempts. He is averaging 103 yards per game.
Three running backs could see some carries for the Pioneers. James Tillman and Greg Gates have had an outstanding year, but you can’t forget about Ashford Johnson. This is a solid trio in the backfield and if one of these guys is having a tough day they have an option to bring in someone else to get something going. Gates and Tillman have similar numbers, but Gates has had more opportunities – even with missing a game. These guys average under 100 yards per game, but they can get the tough yards for the offense.
I don’t see either rushing attack finding a lot of room in this game, but you have to appreciate and respect the depth that MNU has in the backfield.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:
Juan Redman is one of the better tight ends in the country. When you think Redman has been held in check for a game he will find a way to get open and make a big play. Austin Conyers can be a big play wide receiver. The best chance for him to have a big play is to run a hitch and go route along the sideline. If he gets behind the secondary it could be tough to catch him.
Bradley Norwood and Joel Nixon are on the other side as the go-to guys for the Mustangs. The two have combined for 18 touchdown passes this season. Both players have over 700 yards receiving. They have dealt with two quarterbacks this season and continue to find ways to get open and make big plays. MNU has a pretty solid defense so Norwood and Nixon will have their work cut out for them in Olathe.
After losing to Sioux Falls this season Steve Ryan turned the offense over to redshirt freshman Jordan Jacupke. The signal caller was expected to be the starting quarterback entering the season until Chris Stutzriem transferred to the school. Jacupke is not the guy and may not have the arm strength Stutzriem offered, but he can run with the football. He is a dual threat quarterback that will complete a lot of short passes for his team to be successful.
Sean Ransburg has started all season for the Pioneers. He struggles to throw the football accurately, but has the ability to run the ball. Ransburg has proven he is a winner. He won three state championships in high school and is perfect in college as a starter. He has now won 52 straight games dating back to his sophomore year of high school.
This is a battle of dual threat quarterbacks. Jacupke will be very good in the years to come, but the advantage goes to the experience of Ransburg.
Both teams have some special players on the defensive side of the football, especially in the middle at the linebacker position. Morningside is led by a couple of guys names Marshall. Marshall Tuttle was named the Great Plains Athletic Conference Defensive Player of Year. He also earned defensive player of the game honors in the first round game against Dickinson State. Marshall Barney is also one of the top tacklers on the team. These two guys are definite leaders on the team.
MNU is led by all-American Jake Duran. This is a guy that will make a ton of big plays. His play is helped by the supporting cast for the Pioneers with Steve Kiberz and Brady Croucher. Joe Camacho is very good off the sideline as well.
Morningside’s Joe Goforth and MNU’s Dantren Anderson are a couple of guys that will be all over the field. The two have been dominant this season and sit towards the top of their respective teams defensive statistical categories.
Sometimes a defensive battle can come down to the performance of the two teams kickers. Morningside has C.J. Gradoville has converted 20 of his 26 attempts this season. His biggest struggles have come beyond 40 yards where he is 5-9 this season. Inside 30 yards and this young man is automatic. His longest kick of the season is 47 yards. On the other side is Cody Morrow, who has made half of his 30 field goal attempts this season. His longest made field goal of the season is 53 yards. Morrow was 4-4 against Lindenwood to lead the Pioneers to victory. If the game came down to a needed field goal, I like the chances of Gradoville.
These two teams match up very well. Many of the questions could come down to the difference in experience between the two signal callers. Is Jacupke ready to lead the Mustangs to a big win or will Ransburg continue his winning ways? The defenses are pretty solid and it comes down to the ability to contain dual threat quarterbacks. I think the Pioneers get a lead and Morningside adds a field goal late, but the Pioneer defense comes up with a big stand late in the game to preserve the victory and move on to the semifinals.