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Friday, Oct. 21, 2016

Vikings host St. Francis in playoff debut

Friday, November 18, 2011

Freshman Bruce Reyes will make his playoff debut in charge of the Vikings' offense.
(Chris Allen/Democrat-News)
Missouri Valley College head football coach Paul Troth set winning the Heart of America Conference championship as the team's goal, believing the rest would take care of itself.

The Vikings accomplished the first objective, sharing the title with MidAmerica Nazarene, and grabbed the gold ring in the process with a home game to begin the NAIA Championship Series.

"I'm real happy for the seniors," Troth remarked. "They'll remember this."

Valley has won 10 straight games at Gregg-Mitchell Field, beating three nationally-ranked foes there this season alone. If the Vikings' home scoring margin of 241-62 -- compared to 162-56 on the road -- suggests they play better on their own turf, Troth will go along with that conclusion.

"If you think it's true, it doesn't matter if it is or isn't," he observed. "The benefit's there."

That won't matter much to St. Francis (Ind.), which visits Marshall for a first-round contest Saturday. The Cougars have appeared in the playoffs 12 of the past 13 years, winning eight straight openers. The last two were on the road, including a 46-38 decision at HAAC runner up Lindenwood in 2010.

"If you look at the NAIA over the past 10 years, they're among the top in wins," Troth said. "They've had tremendous success."

It's an incredible run, considering that St. Francis only started up its program 14 years ago. Head coach Kevin Donley brought his winning formula from Georgetown (Ky.) and has led the Cougars to 139 victories, taking them to three straight championship games from 2004 to '06.

"You watch them on film and you can see they know what they're doing and are going to be well-prepared," Troth noted.

Ninth-ranked St. Francis (8-2) possesses multiple offensive looks, tailored to its personnel and opponents, which Troth noted "is a lot of stuff to be prepared for."

The Cougars also have ability. Senior tailback Frank Wolfe averages 6.2 yards per carry, while senior quarterback Justin Brose gains 7.8 yards per pass attempt and is 20th in the NAIA with a 136.9 efficiency rating.

Big-play potential comes from junior wideout Austin Coleman, the nation's leading kick returner with a 48.7-yard average and four touchdowns. A hometown speedster from Fort Wayne, Coleman wasn't available during his team's two losses, against then-No. 2 St. Xavier (Ill.), 42-21, and currently top-ranked Marian (Ind.), 40-13.

"We have to make them earn it, make them drive the ball," Troth said. "They're going to score points. We have to slow them down."

If there's one area favoring the No. 7 Vikings (9-1), it's turnovers. While they are plus-10 in that department, St. Francis is minus-8.

"They don't seem to be doing it now," Troth said. "We're not expecting that to happen."

While the Cougars haven't had a shut-down defense -- yielding 21.4 points per game -- "they don't have an obvious weak spot," according to Troth. Senior middle linebacker Brody Kalbaugh is second in the NAIA with 107 tackles.

"He puts himself in good spots and runs well, just a good football player," Troth said. Despite Kalbaugh's potential impact, "in your scheme you don't worry about one particular player. You want to account for everybody."

Facing a solid overall defense, the Vikings' imbalance between run (230.1 yards per game) and pass (163.5) is a concern.

"I don't think we can be one-sided and win," Troth admitted. "We need to have consistent drives. If we're going three-and-out a bunch, it's going to be a long day."

This puts more responsibility on the shoulders of Valley quarterback Bruce Reyes, a talented true freshman from Beaumont, Texas, but Troth said "he's excited about the chance."

"It's a matter of going through progressions and putting the ball in the right spot," Troth said. "If we can run the ball, it makes everything easier."

Missing out on the playoffs just once in the last five seasons -- 2009, the last time the Vikings appeared in the post-season -- St. Francis' players have greater experience at this level. Whether that recent history is a factor or not, Troth typically views this contest in a singular context.

"When you get rid of all the excitement, it's still just a football game," he explained. "You still have to go out and play well to have a chance to win."

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