SIOUX CITY — Only one team can win the Great Plains Athletic Conference regular-season football championship on Saturday.
Both Morningside and Northwestern believe they have a good chance to be the victor.
The top-ranked Mustangs and No. 5 Red Raiders — both with perfect 9-0 records — will decide that at 1 p.m. Saturday at DeValois Field in Orange City.
This is the first time in a long time both teams face each other with something valuable at stake. Along with the GPAC title on the line, there’s also something important to win for — home-field advantage in the playoffs, which start next week.
Sure, both teams are making the playoffs, so in that regard, it’s not a do-or-die type of game and both head coaches — Steve Ryan of Morningside and Matt McCarty of Northwestern — realize that.
That doesn’t mean that one team is just going to lie down and get ready for next week. For all intents and purposes, this is a playoff game for some playoff home games.
“I imagine both teams have the same goals,” Ryan said. “They both want to be undefeated and conference champions. I think we’re just treating it as the conference championship, right?”
In Orange City, McCarty’s main message to the team throughout the week is being their best everyday, and if they did that, it should transfer over to the game on Saturday.
“We’re trying not to treat it any differently,” McCarty said. “We’re trying to keep things as simple and routine as this as possible. I think it’s a big game, because you’re competing for a championship. This is where you want to be.”
Ryan doesn’t believe his team — winners of 24 consecutive games — has any pressure as the No. 1 team, not having played a team as competitive as they’ve seen all year.
The Morningside coach has tried to keep the mood at practice the same it has been in the previous eight game weeks throughout the season. Ryan admitted that practices have been shorter due to colder weather.
In their preparation this week, specifically on the defensive side of the ball, the Mustangs have to prepare for a three-pronged attack that features quarterback Tyson Kooima, running back Jacob Kalogonis and wide receiver Shane Solberg.
Kooima is the engine that has driven the Red Raiders, and he’s made them become one of the top offenses in the country.
The Red Raiders have the 10th best passing offense in the country (279 yards per game) and Kooima is second in the GPAC in total yards with 2,449 yards.
“(Tyson) has an incredible ability to make plays,” Ryan said. “He’s just an outstanding playmaker … with his feet and his arm. It all starts from that standpoint. I don’t know if you can keep him in the pocket. You just want to get the guy to the ground. I think, without question, guys hear the same message week after week to be assignment sound.”
McCarty still treats Kalogonis on a day-to-day basis with a sore ankle, but he hasn’t played since Oct. 19.
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“We’ll get to Saturday and see where he is,” McCarty said.
Ryan thinks Kalogonis will play since it’s a big game, but McCarty will have Garrett Packer ready if Kalogonis isn’t ready to go.
In last year’s game, the Mustangs’ defense held Kalogonis to 87 net yards.
Solberg caught a game-high nine passes in last year’s game, and Ryan wants the secondary to play well on him, but Ryan also knows that Kooima has more than one receiver to throw to, too.
“They always need to know where he is, and if you make too many adjustments on one receiver, you leave other guys open,” Ryan said. “It doesn’t matter who gets the ball in the end zone, it’s a touchdown.”
Solberg has 68 catches, which leads the GPAC and is fifth in NAIA.
When McCarty looks at film on the Mustangs’ defense, he sees a sound group, specifically up front.
Senior linebacker Jacob Katzer led the Mustangs’ defense last week with nine tackles.
“They’re without a doubt the best defense we’ve seen,” McCarty said. “They’re a great group and they don’t have very many weaknesses.”
McCarty said the same thing about the Mustangs’ offense, too.
Morningside leads the nation in 13 different offensive categories.
A couple of those include passing offense per game (340.3); total offense per game (589.8); total scoring (529) and scoring offense per game (58.8).
Morningside quarterback Joe Dolincheck needs 200 yards short to become the sixth Mustang to throw for 3,000 or more in a season.
One of Dolincheck’s favorite targets, Reid Jurgensmeier, has 1,017 receiving yards, and he became the 12th receiver in program history earlier this season to reach the 1,000-yard mark.
Mustangs running back Arnijae Ponder is second in career yards (3,476), is tied for second in touchdowns (48), is sixth in rushing yards per game (105.3) and stands among the first 15 in rushing yards per attempt (5.88).
“Their offense is very explosive and they force you to guard the whole field,” McCarty said. “You have to be really disciplined on defense.”
McCarty hopes his defense can create some turnovers and force the Mustangs into as many third downs as possible.