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Friday, Nov. 25, 2011

Fast-paced St. Xavier to test Pioneers

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A big reason St. Xavier (Ill.), which is in town today to battle MidAmerica Nazarene at 1 p.m. in the national quarterfinals, spent most of the season ranked atop the NAIA football poll centers around the Cougars' incredibly fast-paced offense.

With a style and pace of play similar to the Oregon Ducks, who played for the BCS Championship a season ago, it's not uncommon for St. Xavier to simply exhaust opposing defenses by running approximately three plays per minute.

Adjusting to that tempo, especially early in the game, will be critical for the Pioneers defense if the program is going to reach the national semifinals for a second straight season.

“They run plays about every 20 seconds, but we're practicing even faster than that this week,” senior safety A.J. Rodriguez said. “If anything, we're over-preparing, but that's much better than under-preparing.”

MNU, 10-1, can't afford to get surprised and caught off guard by St. Xavier offense that leads the nation in total passing yards (4,170) and scoring average (48.6 points).

That puts a lot of pressure on the Pioneers' offense to fire on all cylinders as well, even though it will be without starting quarterback Sean Ransburg for the fourth game this season.

Junior Tyler Herl, who was an All-American for MNU two years ago but sat out last season with academic issues, gets the nod under center.

“He's played about half the year and done an outstanding job for us,” Pioneers coach Jonathan Quinn said. “Two years ago, as our starting quarterback, he led us to this round. I definitely feel like he has the experience and leadership ability to get the job done. Hopefully, he has a great game Saturday.”

The key, as it is most games, will be for Herl and MNU's running backs to avoid costly turnovers.

When the Pioneers succeeds in protecting the football, they are hard to beat, especially thanks to a defense that is adept at getting to the quarterback and creating its own turnovers.

“We've had a lot of uncharacteristic mistakes throughout the season, but we have to take care of the ball against a team like St. Xavier,” Herl said. “Their offense will capitalize when we make mistakes, so we can't afford those kinds of plays. By far, it's the best team we've seen, but we think we're just as good and we've been in big games before.”

Riding a 19-game home win streak into the game, MNU, which has won 33 of its last 34 games at Pioneer Stadium, is bound to be confident and would love to jump in front early against a potentially travel-weary St. Xavier squad.

“We're not nervous at all and we're always up for a challenge,” Rodriguez said. “We've proven we can handle it many a times. To be honest, we don't expect this week to be anything different.”

SCOUTING REPORT

When MidAmerica Nazarene runs ... Edge >>> Pioneers

Not having junior quarterback Sean Ransburg available is a significant blow, because he brings so much elusiveness when healthy. But his replacement, Tyler Herl, is deceptively good with his legs. As long as sophomore James Tillman and senior Ashford Johnson avoid fumbles, the run game should get untracked behind an experienced, solid offensive line.

237.4 ... Pioneers' rush yards per game / 89.4 ... Cougars' rush yards allowed per game

When MidAmerica Nazarene passes ... Edge >>> Pioneers

Again, barring turnovers, the Pioneers should be able to move the ball effectively. Heart of America Athletic Conference co-player of the year Juan Redmon is an impossible matchup for any team and MNU has plenty of weapons at wide receiver to keep the chains moving.

196.5 ... Pioneers' pass yards per game / 159.2 ... Cougars' pass yards allowed per game

When St. Xavier (Ill.) runs ... Edge >>> Pioneers

The Cougars are balanced offensively from a play-calling point of view with nearly as many rushes as passes attempted on the year, but the effectiveness of the run game simply hasn't been there. St. Xavier averages 3.9 yards per rush and will struggle against the Pioneers' attacking D.

154.2 ... Cougars' rush yards per game / 105.1 ... Pioneers' rush yards allowed per game

When St. Xavier (Ill.) passes ... Edge >>> Cougars

Of course, as inefficient as the Cougars are on the ground relative to the number of play calls, St. Xavier is ruthlessly efficient in the pass game, averaging 8.4 yards per pass attempt and 12.6 yards per completion as a team. The Pioneers have been vulnerable to big plays at times and aren't completely healthy in the secondary with sophomore cornerback Brad Gourley returning from a shoulder a injury.

347.5 ... Cougars' pass yards per game / 157.0 ... Pioneers' pass yards allowed per game

X-Factor ... Edge >>> Pioneers

The biggest edge for the Pioneers is that they are at home. It's Thanksgiving week, so not having to hassle with travel and securing a practice facility among the dozens of additional headaches that comes with moving 90 players during the busiest travel weekend of the year is a bonus for coach Jonathan Quinn and MNU.

Bottom line

As long as the Pioneers avoid drive-crippling penalties or momentum-zapping turnovers, there is no reason to assume MNU doesn't have an excellent shot at reaching the NAIA semifinals for the second straight season and second time in program history. But make no mistake, the Cougars are going to come to play. Prediction: MidAmerica Nazarene 34, St. Xavier (Ill.) 31

| Tod Palmer, todpalmer@theolathenews.com

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