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Hayden Nelson, Monmouth College Football
MONMOUTH, Ill. – The road to a possible Midwest Conference championship three-peat begins in earnest for Monmouth College (3-1) Saturday when the Fighting Scots host Grinnell College (1-3) in a special 2 p.m. Homecoming kickoff.
Three could be the magic number for Monmouth, which is aiming for three straight MWC titles – a feat unprecedented in program history. The Scots enter the opening of divisional play with back-to-back shutouts after blanking Lawrence 49-0 last week following a 37-0 shutout of Macalester the week before. A third consecutive shutout would mirror last season’s championship run, but that isn’t in coach Chad Braun’s thoughts, although it would give the Scots a good start in divisional play.
“We’re focusing on getting better each week,” said Braun, paying no attention to past scores. “That’s our job. We’ve got to get better as a program. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. We’ve got to prepare, improve and play hard.”
The Scots played hard last week, rolling up more than 400 yards of offense. DeAndre Wright gained nearly 170 yards on the ground and Hayden Nelson threw for 197 yards and a Monmouth single-game record seven TDs, surpassing the previous record of six set first by Mitch Tanney in 2004 and equaled three times by his younger brother, Alex Tanney, most recently in 2009. Jacolby Maxwell caught four of Nelson’s TD throws, tying Yansay Williams’ single-game record set two years ago.
Monmouth’s defense limited the Vikings to just 31 yards rushing and only 108 total yards, giving the offense a short field for nearly every possession.
“The defense did a great job of limiting Lawrence’s opportunities,” said Braun. “The offense took advantage of the short field and put the game away early. I felt like DeAndre was the best player on the field that day. The entire offense can be credited with Hayden’s record. The receivers ran really good routes and the line did an excellent job of pass blocking.”
Grinnell is coming off a 52-7 loss to Ripon a week after St. Norbert blanked the Pioneers 91-0. Despite the lack of scoring in the last two weeks, the Pioneers average over 16 points per game, but are being held to less than 250 yards per game. Freshman quarterback Jake Kaplinski has thrown for four TDs and just under 400 yards. Max Hill – a 5-foot-9 receiver – has most of the catches (12) and yards (160), but Kaplinski has shared the wealth as three other receivers have combined for 23 catches and more than 300 yards.
On the ground, the Scots will need to be aware of freshman running back Daniel Carter. His 74 carries for 247 yards and three TDs are all team highs. His backup – Dustin Saia – leads the team in average per carry, netting over five yards per rush on 45 carries.
“Grinnell does some very good things schematically,” reported Braun. “They run a counter that is difficult to defend. It’s not a conventional look and that could give us some issues. We’ll have to play disciplined defense and have good coverage. The thing that impressed me last week with our defense is that we didn’t give up any big plays. We’ll need a repeat performance of that this week. They spread the ball around passing and that’s a concern.”
Defensively, the Pioneers are led by Ryan Slager, a 6-foot, 200-pound senior linebacker, who leads the nation with more than 10 solo tackles per game and is No. 2 in total tackles. Defensive end Jeff Keele ranks third nationally in tackles for loss, making for a powerful 1-2 Pioneer punch.
“Slager is a handful,” said Braun. “He’s done a really nice job for them. We didn’t throw the ball very well against them last year. That’s something we’ve got to do better this time around.”
One thing is certain. The Scots will be playing to a large Homecoming crowd, which Braun sees as an advantage, not a distraction.
“We’ve got a really good veteran group,” said Braun. “They understand they need to bring a lot of energy and play hard every week. That’s a testament to their focus and leadership. I expect nothing less of them on Saturday, but stands full of fans doesn’t hurt.”