Iâ€™m inclined to answer yes in the short answer, but the more and more I research the No. 7-ranked Mustangs (9-1), the more I realize the Blue Hawks likely have just as tall of an order as they would have had against second-ranked Carroll College.
DSU linebackers coach Pete Stanton said after the selection was announced that this one might be a low-scoring game. And he could be very right. The Mustangs and No. 9-ranked Blue Hawks (9-1) are second and third in the nation in scoring defense and both rank in the top 20 in several defensive categories.
Itâ€™s hard to decipher those numbers though. The Great Plains Athletic Conference is really good and had four teams other than Morningside and Sioux Falls (S.D.) ranked in the NAIA Top 25 at times this season. Northwestern College, which ended the season ranked No. 15 and missed the playoffs, lost to the Mustangs after Joel Nixon returned a punt 50 yards for a touchdown with less than 4 minutes left in the game to secure a 20-17 lead. No. 1 Sioux Falls beat them 28-3.
But the Mustangsâ€™ numbers against the bottom-level teams were often a little outrageous. They outscored the bottom five teams in their conference 209-34. That includes a 71-0 win over Dordt College, a 17-3 win over Concordia University (Neb.), which finished 4-7, and a 23-12 win over Nebraska Wesleyan, which ended up 4-6. That tells me there has to be chinks in the armor somewhere.
That may or may not be at quarterback, where there has been a bit of indecision between two 6-foot-3 gunslingers. Redshirt freshman Jordan Jacupke has the nod received over junior Chris Stutzriem the past three games. Stutzriem is a transfer from NCAA Division I FCS Indiana State who started the teamâ€™s first seven games but was yanked after its loss to Sioux Falls on Oct. 16. Since the switch, Jacupke is 58 of 100 with 10 touchdowns, four interceptions and 699 yards passing. It reminds me a lot of DSUâ€™s QB indecision between Rafe Espinoza and Mike Spargo in the early part of the decade. Both had their high points, but the indecision as to who should get more playing time ended up being one of the Blue Hawksâ€™ biggest downfalls those years.
Defensively, the Mustangs appear similar to DSU. They have 19 interceptions, give up 65.7 rushing yards a game (second in the nation), which will really make DSUâ€™s tendency to want to establish the run a little difficult.
Interestingly, the teams who have pushed Morningside had big days on special teams and defense. Northwestern and Nebraska Wesleyan forced four and three turnovers, respectively.
Another factor that really stands out is that Morningside is WAAAAAY better at home. At Elwood Olsen Stadium (the only place as nice as the Badlands Activities Center the Blue Hawks will play at this year), Morningside has outscored its opponents 229-29. It averages 396 yards a game and gives up 189. On the road, it has only outscored its opponents 127-72 while averaging 351 yards a game and giving up 251.
And letâ€™s not forget that Morningside kicker C.J. Gradoville is the GPACâ€™s all-time leading scorer. He is 19 of 25 on field goals this season â€” he has only missed two from inside 40 yards â€” and 37 of 42 on extra points. He has 390 career points. Never underestimate the power a kicker can have in a close game dictated by defense and special teams.
For all those reasons and more, I believe Morningside is going to be a difficult team for the Blue Hawks to defeat.
DSU is going to need a big game and possibly a TD return from senior Derion Williams, a couple interceptions and some big defensive stops. With that said, though Morningsideâ€™s defense has 19 interceptions (DSU has 16) teams have had varied success throwing against them. With the way senior quarterback Cody Holland and the Blue Hawksâ€™ receivers played at the end of the regular season, it wouldnâ€™t surprise me to see DSU try to hit a few passes early to spark something. They did it against Minot State and look what happened there.