Although the second-ranked Vikings remained undefeated, narrower decisions over Evangel (35-21) and Central Methodist (25-6) to close the regular season hardly sent them into the NAIA Championship Series with a head of steam.
"I don't think we've played our best game the last couple of weeks, for whatever reason," admitted MVC head coach Paul Troth. Opponents "were more excited to play than we were. That's the biggest issue."
To some degree that's understandable, given that down the stretch Valley had a playoff berth all but sewn up. Yet, football being an emotional game, can the Vikings regain that edge for their first-round home contest Saturday against No. 15 Ottawa (Kan.)?
"I've noticed a difference in our practices this week," Troth said. "It's been a much faster tempo, a better focus."
It's been over 30 years since Valley has played the Braves, a HAAC member from 1971 to 1981, so its 19-2 lead in the all-time series between the programs has little current relevance. Ottawa has enjoyed its time in the Kansas Collegiate league, having three titles and two second-place finishes over the past five seasons.
"They've been the dominant force in that conference the past several years," Troth noted, crediting OU head coach Kent Kessinger. "They know what they're doing on both sides of the ball."
The Braves (8-2) got off to a slow start this season with back-to-back losses to Baker (27-20) and Kansas Wesleyan (31-28), but have reeled off eight wins in a row -- scoring at least 35 points in six straight. They do it with a spread-option offense directed by senior Shane Gimzo.
"Their quarterback is their main engine," Troth said, pointing to Gimzo's team lead in rushing (749 yards). He accounts for 20.4 of Ottawa's 38.1 yards per game, eighth highest in the NAIA. "We haven't played anybody who uses their quarterback as much in the run game."
But, like Heisman Trophy contender Collin Klein at Kansas State, Gimzo can beat defenses with his arm as well. He's ninth in the nation with a 154.5 passing efficiency, completing 65.5 percent of his attempts for 2,177 yards and 22 touchdowns. Nearly half of his completions have been to junior John Hilliger, with 83 catches for 1,008 yards and 12 TDs.
"You have to know where his favorite target is," Troth said. "Most quarterbacks have a security blanket, so when he gets in trouble he looks for him."
That isn't so apparent with the Vikings, as sophomore Bruce Reyes -- sixth in the NAIA with a 158.6 rating -- has completed at least 10 passes to seven receivers. Valley's defense, ranked second against the pass (137.7 yards per game), may pose some problems for Gimzo -- especially the pocket pressure applied by sophomore Ty Phillips, third in the nation with 12 sacks.
The Braves only have 14 sacks as a team, but have the top two pick-off artists in the nation in senior cornerback Donald Anderson and senior safety Logan Schultz -- with 19 of the team's 24 interceptions between them.
"They're very opportunistic," Troth said. "Their secondary is very fast to the football and their defensive line tips a lot of passes."
Although a 3-4 base defense, Ottawa "gives you a lot of different looks," according to Troth. "They do a good job of not getting into heavy tendencies."
Although the Braves rank an unimpressive 39th in yardage allowed (354.2), they don't break easily -- No. 24 in scoring defense (20.6).
"They don't give up a lot of points," Troth observed. "You may get some yards in the middle of the field, but they're tough to score on."
The last two weeks, Valley (10-0) has found scoring difficult, with only three first-half touchdowns -- tied at the break in one game and only a one-point lead in the last one. For an offense which runs 58.6 percent of the time, staying in front is vital.
"Momentum's big. We've got to try to limit their momentum," Troth declared. Seeking to snap a three-game losing streak in the playoffs, "it's extremely important in these type of games to get off to a good start."