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Battle for the beach

They can beat you with the run. They can beat you with the pass. They can even beat you with their defense.

The Morningside Mustangs seem to have it all this season, but despite 12 straight NAIA Football Championship Series appearances and four straight trips to the national semifinals the Mustangs on Saturday will face a Southern Oregon team currently in possession of that which has eluded Morningside: a national championship.

The defending national champion and seventh-ranked Raiders will try to keep their repeat hopes alive Saturday in Sioux City, Iowa, against top-ranked Morningside, the last team to hand SOU a playoff loss. Kickoff is set for 10 a.m. Pacific on Saturday at Elwood Olsen Stadium.

“It’s about who puts up more points,” SOU strong safety Julius Rucker said, “and I believe we’re going to do that.”

That would be quite an accomplishment, considering that Morningside (12-1) boasts the nation’s top-ranked offense both in terms of average points scored (61.4) and yards gained (603.6), and also rolls out a defense that’s holding teams to 279.6 yards per game, the fourth best mark in the country.

The Mustangs, SOU head coach Craig Howard said, do it with diversity.

“The thing that they do offensively is they give you more formations than anybody in football,” Howard said, “and they’ll give them to you multiple times before the snap. So, you gotta be really sharp in your adjustments and your alignments.”

All those alignments and pre-snap motions can confuse a defense that isn’t well prepared, Howard said, and make it even more difficult to keep track of the Mustangs’ formidable collection of playmakers. Morningside quarterback Ryan Kasdorf (6-foot-1, 215 pounds), the Great Plains Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year, has passed for 3,616 yards and 44 touchdowns with only three interceptions, and running back Tyler Kavan (5-11, 205) has rushed for 1,252 yards and 26 TDs.

Mustangs’ receiver Connor Niles (5-11, 185) is Kasdorf’s favorite target with 77 catches for 1,446 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Though gaudy, most of those impressive numbers were piled up in the GPAC, which is considered one of the weakest conferences in NAIA football. To account for this Morningside added NCAA Division III powerhouse Wisconsin-Whitewater to its schedule this season, and the Warhawks, who have won five straight national titles, handed the Mustangs their only loss of the season, 33-30, on Sept. 24.

“A lot of teams that they play don’t really have a defense,” said Rucker, who leads the Raiders with 85 tackles and had two interceptions in the 2014 national championship game. “I believe that we have a pretty good defense.”

Howard said the Raiders (10-2) have to finish tackles or they will suffer the consequences.

“Well, the key to stopping Morningside is the key to stopping any offense — that you don’t make mistakes yourself,” he said. “The players on our defensive side of the ball have to do their job and tackle well. We gotta tackle. Their quarterback is elusive, their running back is elusive. … If you miss those tackles then they have first downs and touchdowns.”

Life doesn’t get much easier for the Raiders on the offensive side of the ball, though SOU enters the game on a hot streak, having scored 48 points or more in four of its last five games. The Raiders will have to overcome a key loss on the offensive line, however, as senior right guard Dylan Bratlie has been ruled out after hurting his knee late in the fourth quarter of SOU’s quarterfinal win over Baker.

Junior quarterback Tanner Trosin steers a Raider ship that ranks fifth nationally in points per game (42.3) and seventh in total offense (497.7 ypg).

Trosin, a dual-threat signal caller, has completed 66 percent of his passes for 2,318 yards and 14 touchdowns and ran for another 779 yards and 10 scores. He’s also thrown six interceptions.

Melvin Mason is SOU’s leading rusher with 794 yards and 11 touchdowns, but three more Raiders, including Trosin, have rushed for 400 yards or more, giving the Raiders one of the most balanced rushing attacks in the country.

“The past couple weeks,” Trosin said, “the offense, starting with the o-line, the receivers and the running backs, has been putting a lot of preparation into film study and I feel once everybody can do their one-eleventh on the field, we can be pretty good collectively as an offense.”

The last time SOU and Morningside went head to head, in the 2012 national quarterfinals, the Mustangs won 47-44 in overtime. The Raiders have won six straight playoff games since that heartbreaker.

Howard said in order for the Raiders to make it seven in a row, they’ll have to avoid making crucial mistakes against the Mustangs’ aggressive defense, which employs a four-man front.

“They still blitz and they still play their coverages,” he said. “I think it is a (good matchup). Our key is tempo. Can we go fast? And our quarterback. Does he make good decisions? If (Trosin) makes great decisions, we look pretty good. But if he doesn’t, if he’s guessing, just like any quarterback, we end up punting it or putting it in their hands.”