It was there six years ago that the Vikings began their return to national prominence. Unranked MVC opened the season with a 29-23 upset of No. 5 Evangel, an NAIA quarterfinalist the previous year and pre-season pick to win the Heart of America Conference title.
Valley went on to sweep the league and reach the first of back-to-back NAIA semifinals and have been a Top 25 program ever since. The Crusaders have never been the same, not having returned to the playoffs and coming off four straight losing seasons.
Now the roles are somewhat reversed. The third-ranked Vikings need only to win Saturday at Evangel to clinch a share of the conference crown, which they did a year ago. However, the No. 15 Crusaders (7-2, 6-1 HAAC) are in the hunt, with both Valley and 12th-rated MidAmerica Nazarene standing between them and a title.
Evangel boasts a high-powered attack, ranking second in the NAIA in total yardage (493.1 yards per game) and third in passing offense (312.3). The Crusaders are driven by junior quarterback Andrew Brimhall, No. 12 in the nation in pass efficiency (149.7) -- having completed 142 of 271 attempts for 2,536 yards and 22 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions.
Brimhall's favorite targets are his wideouts, junior Jesse Vaughn (47 receptions) and senior Mitch McHenry (37) -- a converted quarterback -- who have 14 touchdowns between them. Senior Tommy Meyer has been an Evangel mainstay at running back, coming into the contest with 739 yards and seven TDs on 137 carries for an average of 5.5 yards per touch.
The Vikings (8-0, 7-0), of course, boast one of the nation's stingiest defenses -- ranked second overall (226.8) and third in points allowed (12.0 per game). It's the old question of irresistible force versus immovable object.
On the flip side, the gap between the teams is more evident. While Valley has the nation's fourth-ranked scoring offense (43.6) and nets 434.9 yards per game, the Crusaders' defense is the second-worst in the league in yielding an average of 219.2 yards on the ground and 235.8 yards through the air per game.
Evangel doesn't break as easily as it bends, seventh in the HAAC by giving up 30.1 points per game, due to a nice pair of linebackers in senior Steven Swillum and junior Zach Reed. Still, this contest has the makings of a shoot-out.
That's essentially what happened a year ago at Gregg-Mitchell Field. The Crusaders took a 14-7 lead into the second quarter before surrendering five touchdowns in a row to fall behind by a 25-point margin early in the fourth quarter and losing, 52-24.
Whether it plays out the same way this time around remains to be seen, but -- unlike a year ago -- Evangel has considerably more at stake: a possible league championship and a spot in the NAIA playoffs, neither of which was possible by the late stage of 2011.