Southern Oregon's season-long comeback from unranked and 2-2 all the way to 10th-ranked and playoff bound behind six straight wins is one of the feel-good stories of the NAIA Football Championship Series.
But the Raiders' first-round opponent — the St. Ambrose Fighting Bees of Davenport, Iowa — has a pretty good story going in its own right.
AT ST. AMBROSE
The eighth-ranked Bees, like the Raiders, suffered a painful double-overtime loss in Week 4, to Grand View, but also like the Raiders won their final six regular-season games to secure a spot in the 16-team playoffs. Now, the two comeback artists will square off in a first-round game Saturday, at Brady Street Stadium in Davenport, Iowa.
"I think it'll be a very competitive game," St. Ambrose sixth-year head coach Mike Magistrelli said. "It's hard to predict, but I know we'll come out and compete and put our best out there."
St. Ambrose (9-1), which finished in a three-way tie for first place in the Mid-States Football Association Midwest League, was riding high following two straight wins over ranked teams when it hosted then No. 18 Grand View on Sept. 29. The Bees were in good position after Eric Williamson threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Zach Grant midway through the second quarter to give St. Ambrose a 15-3 lead.
But Grand View, thanks in part to St. Ambrose's turnover woes, battled back to take a 26-23 lead with 1:12 to go. St. Ambrose, showing some of the poise that would come to define its regular season, forced overtime when Quinn Treiber drilled a 48-yard field goal as time expired, but eventually succumbed in overtime, 29-26.
St. Ambrose ran the table from that point on, dominating most of its opponents with a balanced offense that ranks 13th in the nation in yards per game (437.4). Williamson has been one of the main reasons. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound junior out of Springfield, Ill., has completed 63 percent of his passes for 2,676 yards and 34 touchdowns with only eight interceptions to rank third in the nation in passing efficiency.
Grant, Williamson's top target, is also having a banner year. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound freshman out of Rochester, Ill., leads the nation with 87 receptions and ranks fifth with 1,132 yards receiving.
That, combined with St. Ambrose's more-than-adequate rushing attack — the Bees average 164 yards rushing per game — makes the Bees one of the most difficult teams in the nation to defend.
"We'll have to continue to maintain some of that balance we have in our passing and running game (Saturday)," said Magistrelli, whose team is scoring 33 points per game. "It'll be a good matchup for us. And I think Southern Oregon, when they chose to bring pressure (on defense), they do it pretty well. So that's something we'll have to be prepared for."
The Raiders' defense certainly brought timely pressure last Saturday against Montana Tech, sacking Orediggers' quarterback Nick Baker six times and forcing several hurried throws under pressure. SOU (8-2), which is surrendering 32.5 points per game, is hoping for more of the same Saturday.
"We've watched the film, we've analyzed it and we've been breaking it down to the point where we can see where their weaknesses are and where our defense can fit and what our strong points will be," SOU sophomore linebacker Daniel Breaux said. "They're a run-first team and our run defense has shown lots of prominence in the past. We're really confident in that. We're going to try to force them to throw the ball and our secondary will do their best to keep those receivers covered."
The St. Ambrose defense allowed 16.3 points per game during the regular season and is led by junior linebacker Jeremy Wallace (6-foot-1, 215), who has 123 tackles to rank fourth in the nation.
The Bees appear to be well equipped to deal with Southern Oregon's high-octane offense, which ranks No. 1 in the nation in both yards per game (657) and points per game (54.4). That's because St. Ambrose has roughed up opposing quarterbacks to the tune of 27 sacks, good enough to rank 19th nationally.
Not that Magistrelli believes the Bees will be spending lots of time in SOU's backfield — Raiders quarterback Austin Dodge, the nation's leading passer, has only been sacked once this season.
"I don't know that you're going to sack (Dodge)," Magistrelli said. "He does a really good job getting rid of the ball quickly, so I'd be surprised. But I think what we've got to do more is just put pressure on him, make him have to make decisions a little faster than he wants to. At least try and pressure him."
The Bees will be making their 12th playoff appearance and first since 2008. They last hosted a postseason game in 2006.
The Raiders will be making their first playoff appearance since 2002.
"I don't think that's a factor," Magistrelli said. "We don't have a kid in our program that's been in the playoffs."
There's no telling how much of a home-field advantage the Bees will have at Brady Street Stadium, a gorgeous 10,000-capacity facility that has synthetic turf. The weather report calls for temperatures in the low 50s and sunny, so SOU's pass-happy offense — Dodge throws 45 passes per game on average — will likely be unaffected by the elements.
The Raiders will take a charter plane Friday morning and practice at the stadium in the afternoon. To prepare for playing on synthetic turf, which SOU has yet to experience this season, the Raiders have been practicing this week at U.S. Cellular Community Park.
All things being equal, Magistrelli believes that the team that keeps its emotions in check will probably win.
"I think these are two good teams," he said, "and any time two good teams play like this I think the team that handles some of the highs and lows the best will have an advantage. We talk to our kids about not getting too high and not getting too low and continuing to stay focused."