NAIA Ramblings of Jason Dannelly from 8/27/2007: Let’s Get it Started!

Tough Opener
The first full week of NAIA football is upon us and it does not appear the schedule will disappoint. For an example of the toughness you should look no further than Helena, MT where the storied Carroll College Fighting Saints play host to up and coming Black Hills State.

Last year Carroll defeated the Yellow Jackets 28-3 in Spearfish SD but this year’s Yellow Jacket team has the ability to make sure that doesn’t happen again. I think John Scott’s program is ready to make some noise and be seen as the dominant DAC team much like the Dickinson State’s from the early part of this decade. DSU won or tied for four straight titles and I think BHSU’s program can get to that same level this year.

Black Hills’ starting QB Erik Osborne has another year under his belt and his experience in last year’s game against Carroll as well as the playoffs gives him the ability to try to pick apart a tough Saints defense.

And the Saints defense will be the major story of this game. Carroll College has always been tough on defense much because of head coach Mike Van Diest also coordinating that side of the ball. BHSU’s offense improved all of last season and should be solid against Carroll. Linebacker Owen Koeppen leads the Saints defense along with defensive back Nick Milodragovich. Overall the Saints return 7 starters to their vaunted defense.

As good as that defense is Carroll cannot wins games with a lack of offense. The offense of the Saints really struggled at times last season. Jon Barnett may feel less pressure this season as he goes under center for his second season as a starter. Without the four year streak of a national title looming over his head I think he will play more loosely and the offense will be more open than it seemed last season.

Game time is Saturday at 1:00 p.m. MDT at Nelson Stadium where a crowd of over 5000 is expected for the Saints home opener. I think it’s the Saints game to lose but believe the Jackets will be right with them every step of the way.

Postseason Qualifiers … Already?
There are several postseason appearances that could be determined by the first week of play at the NAIA level. It sounds unfair, but that’s the truth about NAIA College football this year. The conference races in the Heart of America Athletic Conference and the Great Plains Athletic Conference heat up in the first week of play.
The biggest game in terms of conference play likely comes in the Heart of America Athletic Conference. Benedictine plays host to 2006 NAIA Semifinalist Missouri Valley. The Vikings are a solid #3 team with one question mark … experience at the QB position.

 

The MoVal defense is very solid and should be able to control the pace of the Benedictine offense. However the question remains if the inexperience at QB will slow down the Vikings offense or if they will be able to get by on the legs of Robert Holmes and the entire offensive line which returns in tact.

Junior Adam Mares was named the starter this fall in Marshall and I seem to think he is going to be the type of guy that can get the job done for the Vikings. He has the pedigree that I like to see in a kid who is taking over a program that is seen as one of the best in the NAIA.

That pedigree follows this line of thinking:  He is a local kid who has been in the system. No one expects him to be the Joe Montana of the program and he has enough weapons around him where he can worry about two things: Make the right decision when going through your progressions and do not turn the ball over.

Troth is a smart coach and will bring Mares along and instill confidence in him throughout the first game. He is not going to have him sling it 60 yards down field and then chew him out when he throws an interception on the play. Mares will hit the short passes and get the ball to Holmes for 4 yards a pop. The returning weapons for MoVal need to perform in week one and Mares will follow suite.

The Vikings posses two of the NAIA’s most exciting defensive football players in Larry Wentzel on the d-line and Reggie Singletary at defensive back. These two players are cornerstones to a solid Viking defense that should be able to limit the Benedictine offense in week one.

Benedictine has a shot to knock off the #3 team in the country this week, mostly due to the fact they have 7 returning starters on offense themselves. Add in the home field advantage and the Ravens will give MoVal all they want and more. I think Jesse Thomas is a quality running back that can get the Raven’s 100 plus yards a game.

The Ravens and Vikings are probably the game of the week in the NAIA.

NW vs. NW … I’ll take NW
Another big conference match up would be Northwestern (IA) traveling to Nebraska Wesleyan to play in a 6:00 p.m. game at Abel Stadium in Lincoln. Depending on how fast a rental car can drive I plan on taking in most of this game after the Sioux Falls/Dana match up concludes.

Nebraska Wesleyan has been fourth best in the GPAC for years and if they want to get among the nation’s elite, they have to beat the highly rated Red Raiders from Orange City.

It will not be an easy task as the Red Raiders are one of the more efficient teams in the NAIA. They will not wow you with big plays and 90 yard bombs to score touchdowns but they will impress the football purists with great defense, discipline and an offense that makes you say “Man, how can they beat us.”

What I mean by “Man, how can they beat us” is this: I cannot tell you how many times I have stood in a coach’s office or talked to a coach at the conclusion of a football game and they have said those very words to me. You look at the offense, scout all the plays and think “we’ve got this team beat.”

Then you play them … 3 yards, 4 yards, 4 yards and repeat … . all the way down the field for the score. Craig Hector has the needed experience to lead the Red Raiders to a conference title if their young running backs can carry the load left by the departing Keith Sietstra.

If Wesleyan wants to get into the playoffs they have just got to get it done this week. No excuses. None of this “Well, it was a tough draw out of the gate” or “We just need to instill confidence in our team.” Bull … if you want it, go win it. It’s yours for the taking. Northwestern in Lincoln … week one … and they are replacing several All-Americans. Hey P-Wolves, it’s on the table … come get it if you want it.

And after all that inspiration and motivation for Wesleyan … I still think Northwestern wins this game.

Out of Conference for Confidence?
Two teams in the Frontier conference venture into non-conference play this week and they will be pushed as if they were playing a game in the middle of the season that was for the conference title. Dickinson State of the Dakota Athletic Conference travels to Havre, MT to take on Montana State University Northern. The Lights were an NAIA postseason qualifier last season and look to repeat that feat again this fall.

Led by 16 returning starters the Lights are the odds on favorite against Dickinson State, but the Hawks have been known to surprise people from season to season. Dickinson State returns 12 starters, but anyone that knows this football program knows that DSU has the ability to beat anyone from week to week because they will not beat themselves. Head Coach Hank Biesiot enters his 31st year at Dickinson State and his teams are known for efficiency as well as hard nosed play. The scheme may stay the same but everyone knows that you have to BEAT Dickinson because they will not beat themselves.

Important note in this game is that it is the return of Don Saisbury to the Lights backfield. Technically he never left as he started every game last season. But for those of you who forgot, Saisbury underwent treatment for cancer last spring.

Since the treatments he has been declared free of cancer and ready to play for the Lights while also getting married last summer. Truly an inspiring story. I had a chance to talk with Saisbury on the phone and I can do nothing but wish great things for this man.

Southern Oregon travels to Eastern Oregon for an interstate non-conference event. Coming into the season Eastern Oregon holds high hopes for their shot at Frontier Conference crown but they have to get by Southern Oregon first. SOU gave Montana Tech everything they wanted last week in Ashland but the Red Raiders came up on the losing end, 32-30.

EOU is seen as a dark horse in the Frontier to win the title. With Carroll being knocked off last season I get this unexplainable sense of confidence from the rest of the conference as if it is anyone’s title to win. People look at Montana-Northern or Montana Tech as the likely candidates. I feel like EOU has the best possibility of all of them to take the title from Carroll College because of their talent. There is no doubt that Southern Oregon and Eastern Oregon will be a great game this weekend in LaGrande, Oregon.

Putting The Title Belt on the Line
The defending national champions, the University of Sioux Falls, gets the defense of their title started this week in their new digs against Dana. The Cougars finished playing their home events last fall at Howard Wood Field in Sioux Falls and now will move into their permanent home of the Sanford Health Sports Complex and more importantly, Bob Young Field.

Bob Young is the recently retired football coach that led the Cougars to national prominence. He is absolutely one of the best people I have ever worked with let alone what he has accomplished as a coach. For those with short term memory you may remember Coach Young won the 1996 NAIA national title and played for another in 2001. Young will be on hand for the field dedication on Saturday as will the Victory Sports Network as we begin our fall tour of football games. Look for photos and highlights next week.

Sioux Falls returns All-American QB Chad Cavender as their offensive leader after he threw for just under 3700 yards in last year’s championship season. Josiah Fenceroy returns as an All-American tight end to lead a solid wide receiver core while Trey Erickson will continue to play Mr. Everything as a wide receiver, slot back, kick returner and sometimes even a running back.

The Dana Vikings offense will be led by Marcus Sladek at QB who enters his third season as the Vikings’ starter. Dana is coming off of their first winning season since 1996 as they went 6-5 last season. The Vikes could repeat that performance again this season but I do not expect them to knock off the Cougars this Saturday. Game time is set for 1:00 p.m. in Sioux Falls.

Final Thoughts
I would like to thank everyone who attended and helped out at the VSN “First Down Classic” last weekend. It was an enormous success and I could not have been happier with how the event turned out. There was some really exciting football, some great plays and two great teams battling it out.
Even though MidAmerica Nazarene pulled away with a 59-38 victory I know for a fact that the APU coaches and players were happy with how things turned out in terms of being a part of something special.

 

Thanks to all fans of VSN for being a part of the NAIA. It’s going to be a GREAT season!
– Jason Dannelly, VSN Owner and Chief Writer

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