Northwestern at Briar Cliff football

Northwestern's Tyson Kooima carries against Briar Cliff during football action at Memorial Field.

Jim Lee, Sioux City Journal

ORANGE CITY, Iowa | Two GPAC heavyweights renew their rivalry on Saturday.

No. 4 Morningside and No. 15 Northwestern bring matching 4-0 records into the NAIA Game of the Week that will give the winner a big early step in the conference race where just three unbeaten teams remain after two weeks of GPAC play.

"It is one of those games over the years that has been for first place or second place in the conference, and our guys have respect for Morningside and know it is going to be an awesome opportunity to compete,” Northwestern Coach Matt McCarty said.

This game follows last year’s 14-13 squeaker won by the Mustangs at Olsen Stadium. Morningside’s 14 points and 259 yards total offense were its lowest offensive totals since it had only 245 yards in a 35-0 loss against Grand View in the 2013 NAIA Championship Series Semifinals.

“They look very similar (on defense) to what they have done in the past, but the thing about Northwestern is they are always exceptionally well coached on defense,” Morningside Coach Steve Ryan said. “They are going to have a good plan for us and whatever that plan is we just have to be ready to play against it.”

Morningside enters the game coming off a bye week following a victory over Dordt. Ryan continues to see his team progress from week to week.

"We just had to work at becoming better at the things we need to become better at," he said. "As you go through your first four games you start learning about what your team is, what your team can do, what your team is good at. We are getting better at the things we are pretty good at."

Morningside is second in the nation with an average of 616.8 yards total offense per game and is the fourth highest scoring team in the nation with an average of 50.8 points per game. Northwestern is eighth in the nation at 523.5 yards a game and is 11th in scoring at 44.0.

For the Red Raider defense it is about trying to play the way they want to.

“We want to execute at a very high level and we just want to put them in situations where they can play fast,” McCarty said. “It is a challenge and we hope to be able to rise up to that challenge.”

As impressive as the numbers are Ryan is looking for his running game to continue to grow behind first-year runners Bubba Jenkins and Arnijae Ponder while the line continues to gel with three new starters.

Morningside has struggled covering the pass this season. The Mustangs sit 86th in the nation out of 88 teams.

"We have got to continue to get better playing the pass without question," Ryan said. "One of the things Northwestern is fantastic at is their ability create big plays. What we have to do a great job of just limiting the big plays they get."

Ryan said as much as the pass defense has to improve it still comes back to stopping the run and Northwestern sophomore Jacob Kalogonis, who is fifth in the NAIA averaging 126.3 yards a game.

Morningside has the edge in experience at quarterback with junior Trent Solsma second in the nation averaging 404.5 yards of offense per game. Part of Northwestern's resurgence after a three-win campaign last season is the play of true freshman Tyson Kooima who has racked up 1,406 yards so far.

"We had high expectations for (the freshmen) coming out of high school and they hit the ground running and really have just flourished in the early part of the season,” McCarty said. “I think Tyson and his poise has been pretty remarkable through the first four games as a freshman. You see him get better from week to week which is really exciting.”

"There is a huge difference with their quarterback, their running back is young but played last year and some young receivers, without question they have some new young talent on their roster that is playing fantastic,” Ryan said.

Freshman receiver Shane Solberg has 14 receptions for 261 yards and four scores. He is one of several dynamic receivers for the Red Raiders that includes senior Levi TeBrink, junior Jared Nelson and senior J.C. Koerselman.

“Shane has added an interesting dynamic to our offense,” McCarty said. “He is a competitor and a really good football player. We have some very good receivers and it has been fun to watch our offense grow.”

Northwestern has spread the ball around to numerous playmakers this season making them much harder to deal with for opponents.

Morningside is riding an 18-game winning streak in the GPAC since a 49-48 loss at Doane College on Nov. 15, 2014.

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