Vikings under gun versus No. 21 Baker

Friday, October 25, 2019
Junior Joshua Hill (25) and the Vikings' running backs seek to gain traction against No. 21 Baker. (Chris Allen/Democrat-News)

The two football programs that top the NAIA all-time wins list meet Saturday at Gregg-Mitchell Field, but the trend-line for these traditional powers couldn't be more different.

Baker ended Missouri Valley College's five-year run of Heart of America Conference South Division championships in 2015 and has won four straight titles with an 18-1 mark -- reaching the national championship game three years ago. Meanwhile, the Vikings are in danger of their third consecutive losing season unless they can quickly reverse their fortunes.

After muddling through the North Division schedule by splitting six games, Valley was hoping that the divisional campaign would provide new life. Instead, it suffered a blow last week with a mistake-filled 33-20 loss at Central Methodist -- the Vikings' second loss in a row against a former whipping boy.

The 21st-ranked Wildcats (5-2, 1-0 South) are facing challenges in the South, but made a convincing case for their contention a week ago with a 49-20 home romp over No. 23 MidAmerica Nazarene. Their two losses were competitive ones against 12th-ranked Grand View (20-3) and William Penn (21-18), teams which demolished Valley by 22 and 21 points respectively.

Following the sudden termination of head coach Mike Grossner in February for unspecified violations of school rules, his top assistant throughout Baker's revival over the past 15 years took over and hasn't missed a beat. That's hardly a surprise since Jason Thoren has been named the HAAC "defensive coordinator of the year" the past three seasons.

It's little surprise, then, that the 'Cats are third in the league in fewest points allowed per game (14.3) and fourth in total defense (283.4 yards per game). However, their offense has been even more impressive, second in scoring (40.7) and offensive yardage (426.0).

Credit the ladder to a well-balanced attack, which features the passing of junior quarterback Marco Aguinaga and running of junior tailback J.D. Woods. Aguinaga has completed 60.7 percent of his passes for 1,379 yards and 11 touchdowns while Woods has averaged 139.8 yards per game in rushing -- ranking in the NAIA's top 20 with 699 yards despite missing two games.

Backing up Woods has been freshman Nigil Graves-Houston, who has also averaged more than 100 yards per game. Between them, they have 19 touchdowns. This will be against a Valley defense which has allowed 161.3 rushing yards per game, ninth in the league.

The Vikings (3-4, 0-1) are also ninth in rushing offense (131.4), but are second in passing yardage (228.9). Senior Jake Bridges will have to throw against the conference's top passing defense (156.4), ranked 12th in the nation.

Although the metrics point to a possible blowout, this is an historic rivalry which has resulted in many an upset over the years -- such as in 2017, when the Vikings, 4-5 at the time, bumped off second-ranked Baker, 27-22, behind two Bridges touchdown passes despite being out-gained 551 to 234 yards. Six sacks, three by linebacker Jacob King, made an impact.

Valley hasn't shown that type of defensive prowess this year, but it will have to unlock some thus-far hidden talents if it's going to avoid a third straight loss and be a factor in the South Division race.

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