The NAIA football season is coming to a close, quickly. With just two games on the docket this weekend, the ending light is beginning to beam through the end of the tunnel. Saturday evening two teams will be making plans to visit Rome, Georgia and play for a National Championship. It’s no real surprise the top four teams entering the postseason are the four teams still remaining. All four teams remain unbeaten heading into this weekend. Carroll will attempt to hold down an explosive Saint Xavier offense that is averaging 51 points per game. Sioux Falls has kept its three-peat hopes alive under first-year head coach, Jed Stugart.
The Victory Sports Network will be in Sioux Falls for the second time this season. Sioux Falls is 2-0 this season as the VSN Game of the week and 4-0 All-Time, while MidAmerica Nazarene is 3-0 this season and 4-0 All-Time. Last week MidAmerica Nazarene pounded Morningside College with Adam Riggers, who hadn’t taken a snap all year, engineering the offense. The Pioneers hope to have Sean Ransburg back in the huddle this week. Riggers players very well last week, but Ransberg offers a second dimension to the offense.
Here is a look at the two teams position-by-position:
MidAmerica Nazarene needs to have a solid rushing attack in this game and they certainly have the guys to get it done. Greg Gates, Ashford Johnson and James Tillman will all see carries in the game. This group needs to find more room than it did against Morningside last week. If you take away a 58-yard touchdown run by Tillman, the trio combined for less than four yards per carry. Johnson couldn’t find any room against the Mustangs, while Gates wasn’t much better. Perhaps the passing game can open up the run for the Pioneers.
Kris Porter had a big game last week for Sioux Falls, accounting for all three Cougar touchdowns. Entering the game Porter had 53 carries all season and he touched the ball 20 times on the ground against McKendree. Chevon Walker and Jordan Taylor have carried the load most of the season, but saw minimal action last week. They will be going up against a tough defense this week, but all three backs have proven they can carry the load. Expect to see a good mix of the three to keep MNU off balance.
Which three headed monster in the backfield will have a better game this week is the question.
I like the backs in purple and black this week.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:
Jon Ryan is making his case for being the best wide receiver in the country. He is third in the nation in receiving yards with 1,244 on just 69 receptions, behind only Clarence Anderson (94 rec. 1,477 yards) and Mike Maher (109 rec. 1,413 yards). Ryan leads all receivers with 21 receiving touchdowns this season. Outside of Ryan, the Cougars have options in Alex Anderson (46 rec. 7 touchdowns) and Michael Hicks (33 rec. 2 touchdowns). Tony Benedetto and Austin Vanhove don’t have a ton of catches this season, but the two have combined for seven touchdowns. There is a lot of depth in this group. The team relies heavily on one, two or three guys, but there are other players that can make a big play.
Juan Redman is the leading receiver on the other sideline. The big tight end has big play ability and will often find a big catch in the middle of the field. Branden Phillips will be good for short passes. It will need to be a sure tackle or Phillips could turn a short pass into a big gain. Austin Conyers is a hit or miss wide receiver for the Pioneers. He runs a solid hitch and go route on the sideline and if a pass is put on the money then he has the ability to go the distance. Donnie MacLeod and Brett Houchen add solid options as well. This is a fast group of wide receivers.
Sean Ransburg should be a go for Saturday. If not the Pioneers showed last week they have another decent option in Adam Riggers. While he performed well last week, Riggers would have a tough day against Sioux Falls stout defense. If the Pioneers are going to win this game they will need Ransburg to be 100%. He adds a dimension to the offense that other players can’t. Ransburg is second on the team in rushing with 700 yards. He also has seven rushing touchdowns. However, the signal caller has only completed 55 percent of his passes for 1,678 yards. Ransburg will need to be consistent passing the football to help open up the rushing attack.
Jon Eastman is a much different story. He isn’t going to burn too many people on the ground, but he is one of the more efficient passing quarterbacks in the country. The quarterback has completed 217 passes this season (65 percent) for over 3,000 yards and 40 touchdowns. He has only thrown five interceptions on the season. Eastman brings a wealth of experience into the semifinals after once being the starting field general for the Colorado State Rams. He is a very good a running the offense.
Two of the top linebackers in the country will meet on Saturday. MidAmerica Nazarene’s Jake Duran is arguable the top linebacker in the nation. Not far behind is Sioux Falls Cougar Dom Studzinski. Both players are explosive and will be very involved in the defense. Duran has the speed to track down a lot of players from sideline to sideline 10-15 yards off the line of scrimmage. Both players are surrounded by plenty of talent at their position.
Both teams are solid up front. MNU may have more depth that they can rotate in to help keep the Cougar offensive line on their toes. The defensive backs and safeties are solid for both teams. Five different players have scored on an interception for the Pioneers, while 14 players have intercepted a pass for the Cougars.
Both defenses are solid, but MNU might be just a bit stronger.
Cody Morrow remains 15-30 on the season after not attempting a field goal last week against Morningside. His longest attempts of the season is 56 yards, while his longest made field goal was 53 yards.
Braden Wieking isn’t much better with 14 made field goals in 22 attempts (63 percent). He has had two kicks blocked this season and a long made field goal of 44 yards. He is 4-4 in the postseason.
MidAmerica Nazarene has made it to the semifinals for the first time in program history. Sioux Falls is an experienced postseason team in search of its third straight national championship. The Pioneers will need its defense and special teams to step up in this game if they are going to claim victory. Both teams appear pretty solid on the defensive side of the ball. Sioux Falls has a clear cut advantage on offense. If MNU doesn’t get turnovers and then capitalize on the Cougar mistakes then they could be in for a long day. The Pioneers might have the advantage on defense, but the offense for Sioux Falls is good enough to outscore the MNU offense in this one.