What happens when the most explosive offense in the nation lines up against the most dominant defense?
Morningside College head football coach Steve Ryan won't even try to predict how things will play out Saturday when his third-ranked Mustangs host 10th-ranked Southern Oregon in the NAIA quarterfinals, except to say that, yes, the visiting Raiders look just as impressive on film as their gaudy statistics suggest.
"I have no idea," Ryan said, "but boy, those guys sure are good."
What: NAIA national quarterfinals.
When/Where: Noon Saturday (10 a.m. Pacific) at Elwood Olsen Stadium, Sioux City, Iowa.
Matchup: In a battle of strength versus strength, SOU's top-ranked offense will face Morningside's top-ranked defense. The Raiders are scoring an average of 53.5 points per game, while the Mustangs allow just 8.4 points per game.
The Mustangs (11-0) are pretty good, too, and will try to keep their perfect season going Saturday at Elwood Olsen Stadium in Sioux City, Iowa, against a Raiders (9-2) squad that has won seven games in a row. Kickoff is scheduled for noon local time, 10 a.m. Pacific.
The other quarterfinal games Saturday are: Bethel University (9-3) at Missouri Valley College (11-0), University of the Cumberlands (10-1) at Saint Xavier University (10-1) and University of Saint Francis (9-2) at Marian University (9-1).
The Mustangs rolled through the Great Plains Athletic Conference during the regular season behind a defense that's been practically immovable and an offense that also ranks among the best in the land. They have the nation's top-rated defense in terms of points allowed per game (8.4) and rushing yards allowed per game (56), the No. 3 rated defense in terms of total yards allowed per game (254.4) and the nation's fourth-ranked scoring offense (45.2 points per game). Defensive back Colby Henderson, a senior, is the reigning NAIA defensive player of the year and has three of the Mustangs' 20 interceptions (Jared Goforth has a team-high seven). He's also the nation's top kick returner.
That defense will face its stiffest test yet on Saturday, however, against a Raiders squad that leads the nation in total offense (647 yards per game), passing offense (449.2 yards per game) and scoring (53.5 points per game).
"I think it's going to be a good game," said Ryan, who has guided the Mustangs to nine straight postseason appearances. "But sometimes when you think it's a classic matchup, things don't go the way you think they're going to go. I'm just excited to play a team of Southern Oregon's caliber and the challenge that it presents."
"We're confident in our game plan, just like every week," said SOU quarterback Austin Dodge, who has completed 64.3 percent of his passes for 4,632 yards and 39 touchdowns. "I am assuming it's going to be a fight. Their defense is good, our offense is fast and explosive, so it'll be a good battle between two sides of the ball."
Morningside's offense is led by a converted wide receiver who has emerged as one of the best quarterbacks in the country as a senior. Joel Nixon, who was the Mustangs' second-leading receiver in 2009 and 2010, leads the nation in passing efficiency (182.3), throwing for 2,933 yards and 39 touchdowns. He's also a threat to run the ball and leads Morningside with 632 yards rushing and two TDs.
"We (moved Nixon to quarterback) during fall camp and we had no idea how it would play out, so it was really a surprise," Ryan said.
Nixon's breakout season has made Morningside one of the most balanced and consistent teams in NAIA football. The Mustangs average 283.5 yards passing and 208.4 yards rushing per game and have yet to be held below 28 points.
The Raiders' defense hasn't exactly overpowered opponents this season — they're surrendering 32 points and 445 yards per game — but it's managed to come up with some big plays at crucial moments and has dominated portions of games. In last week's first-round playoff win at St. Ambrose, SOU trailed 28-17 at the half before shutting out the Fighting Bees the rest of the way en route to the 45-28 victory. Cornerback Josh Leff provided a fitting exclamation point, returning an interception 39 yards for a touchdown with 3:29 to go, capping SOU's 28-0 fourth-quarter beatdown.
"It was just a sense of joy that we took one step toward our goal, and hopefully we can keep taking more," said Leff, who leads the Raiders with six interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns. "We feel good in our game plan. (Morningside's) offense is really good — you're not undefeated for no reason. I know their defense gets all the credit, but their offense has to put points on the board and they do, so it's going to be a great game. I can't wait for it."
The Raiders will be trying to make school history and become the first Southern Oregon football team to advance to the national semifinals after three previous quarterfinal flops. Morningside, on the other hand, will be making its seventh quarterfinal appearance in the last nine seasons and is 1-5 in elite eight games.
To pull off their second straight playoff win on the road, SOU head coach Craig Howard said the Raiders must avoid the turnovers and missed opportunities that plagued them in the first half at St. Ambrose.
"I told them to relax and have fun," Howard said, "because sometimes when you get to this level it's just what you're focused on — winning or losing. You can't think about losing. Don't look at the scoreboard and just play football.
"(The players) can't do anything different now. If they start doing things different now it'll hurt them. If they do their job, we'll be fine."
Contact Tidings sports editor Joe Zavala at 541-776-4469 or e-mail email@example.com.