Like it's 2006 Heart of America Conference league champion, the Missouri Valley College football team has gotten off to a noisy start with convincing victories over nationally-ranked foes, beating No. 22 Baker during Saturday's Family Day at Gregg-Mitchell Field, 38-7.
The Vikings' title run five years ago began with an upset of fifth-ranked Evangel, but it turned out fifth-year senior quarterback Jason Shoulders would have an unexpected all-America campaign leading to the NAIA semifinals. It's an entirely different proposition with a true freshman running the offense.
"It's crazy," admitted Bruce Reyes, whose first career start was assured with an injury to sophomore Lorenzo Dennard. "They gave me the opportunity to start, and I took advantage of it."
Even at a still-developing 6-feet and 180-pounds, Reyes brings with him the imprimatur of "ability to be a big-time player" from superagency IMG's Madden Football Academy director Chris Weinke, a Heisman Trophy and NCAA championship-winning quarterback at Florida State.
Valley was just happy that Reyes completed 14 of 22 passes for 184 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions, despite being sacked five times. Even the best of camps don't replicate true game speed, but Reyes managed to convert two first downs with his feet as well.
One of them came on the Vikings' first possession. After not recovering a Wildcat fumble on the opening kickoff and yielding 32 yards on sophomore Jake Morse's first pass to senior Kyle Bolton, Valley dug in and got a stop when freshman Andrew Kimrey missed a 40-yard field goal attempt.
The Vikings moved 38 yards on seven plays, the last being Reyes' 9-yard boot on third down, before freshman Nijel Daw turned the corner for a 39-yard touchdown run.
"I'd hoped we'd come out and play very well," remarked MVC head coach Paul Troth. "We got momentum early on and kept it from there."
Two possessions later, Valley added to its lead on 36-yard reverse by freshman wideout Dwayne Williams. Meanwhile, the Vikings defense held Baker (3-2, 2-2 HAAC) to three straight short series, 10 snaps in all.
Sophomore Keith O'Neal gained 21 yards on three carries and picked up 22 yards on a pass from Reyes, who then hit senior Gary Taylor for 8 yards and junior Chris Owens for 16. Reyes zipped an 18-yard pass to a diving Taylor near the end zone sideline for a 21-0 Valley lead.
After senior Chris Heale's punt was downed at the BU 1-yard line, the Wildcats kept the ball the final four-and-a-half minutes of the half, reaching the Vikings' 25, before Kimrey missed the uprights from 42 yards out at the gun.
Holding penalties wiped out first-down plays by Daw on Valley's first possession of the second half, and O'Neal got the call the next series -- running eight times for 52 yards before Reyes walked into the end zone from 2 yards out.
"We've got four guys who can't give enough carries to," Troth said. "It's a problem because they all need more touches."
Junior LaNorris Dukes' turn came in the fourth quarter, with nine carries for 72 yards during a drive finished by junior Taylor Beasley's 10-yard toss to freshman tight end Jonathan Bird. That made it 38-0 with 5:29 to go, freshman Jakeb Brasfield earlier making his only field goal try of the game from 25 yards.
The Vikings were hoping for their second shutout in a row, but a bad snap in the final two minutes was recovered by Baker, which scored when Bolton caught sophomore Scott Meyer's 26-yard pass with 1:45 to go.
"We were really disappointed," admitted senior cornerback Wayne Williams. "It would have been nice to step up to the next game with two goose eggs in a row."
Maybe Valley (4-0, 3-0) can start a streak for that, or a new one after not getting a special-team touchdown for the first time in four games, during Saturday's visit to Culver-Stockton. Who can tell what will happen with these Vikings, who have in their hands the potential for a special season?
"This year we have a lot of chemistry," Williams explained. "We're clicking faster."