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The task for the Lakeland College football team in its first-ever postseason playoff game is pretty simple: contain Augustana's powerful running game.
But that's where the difficulty begins.
When the Muskies (8-2) meet the host Vikings (9-1) at noon Saturday in Rock Island, Ill. in the first round of the NCAA Division III football playoffs, Augie will put the nation's second best rushing offensive on the field, a Wing-T attack that averages 352.4 yards per game on the ground.
Lakeland will counter with the nation's fifth-best total defense (238.4 yards per game) and a rushing defense ranked 29th in NCAA Division III at 98.8 yards per game.
Individually, Lakeland senior defensive lineman David Benton is second in the country in sacks per game (1.5) and eighth in tackles for loss (2.1), while senior linebacker Ryan Van De Loo is third in TFL (2.5).
"It is a fun match-up and it will be an interesting match-up," said Lakeland head coach Jim Zebrowski. "We will see how our kids up front play, and how our linebackers can run around. Defensively, you can't stop them, so you have to control their running attack. We have to play team defense like we have all year."
The players to watch for Augustana will be senior quarterback Matt Roe and junior fullback Mike Guzman.
Guzman is leading the team in rushing at 923 yards on 149 attempts in nine games. Since Augie will use the option on the attack, Roe is also a threat, and he's averaging 56.7 yards a game. The Vikings will play action pass occasionally, but they have only thrown the ball 24 times all season, and Roe has thrown more interceptions (three) than touchdowns (two) on the year.
"Roe is the perfect quarterback for that system," said Zebrowksi. "He is an option quarterback and has had a ton of success in high school running a similar type offense. He is a senior and he is really good. He runs well, makes great decisions and is their spark plug. We have to contain him, but we have to contain all their running backs.
"Guzman is another of their big horses. We can't really talk about stopping them, we have to talk about containing them. We need to make them work for everything. The biggest thing in this game is we need to make Augie work down the field and not give up a 50- or 60-yard run. We need to make them pound it out and we need to get some stops."
If the Muskies have played anyone similar to the Vikings this season it's conference rival Concordia, Wis. Concordia runs the same offense, but there are key differences. Zebrowski noted that while Augustana will run out of tight formations, Concordia will often spread the field and employ their wide receivers. Zebrowski still believes having played Concordia will be helpful come Saturday.
"It can't hurt," said Zebrowksi. "I think it helps that they have at least seen an option-type Wing-T team. Once again, Augie is a team that just wants to run the ball and throw it sparingly. They are just going to come at you in waves, and you just have to stand in there and battle every play."
The Muskies have already made school history with the playoff berth, but now have an opportunity to make Illini-Badger Conference history. The IBFC's representative has never won an NCAA Division III playoff game in five tries.
Augustana counters with a rich postseason resume that includes four national titles in 14 previous playoff appearances, although this group is making its first playoff-trip since 2001.
"They have an established tradition of excellence at Augustana and they win all the time," said Zebrowski. "Their kids are used to winning. What they do on offense and defense they do extremely well. I just told our kids the reason we play the type of non-conference schedule we play is to prepare the kids for this type of game."
The Muskies will be playing for the first time in two weeks, so they'll have to shake off any cobwebs from the bye week.
"We have to prepare for the speed of which the game is going to be played at on Saturday," said Zebrowski. "It is kind of hard to emulate in practice how fast this game is going to be played. Augie finished the season with some tough teams in Wheaton and North Central. We have been off for a week and we'll have to see how fast our kids can get acclimated to the play on both sides of the ball. That's the biggest key."
The game pits teams at the top of their conferences in most statistical categories.
Lakeland has the No. 1 scoring offense in the IBFC averaging 36.9 points a game and the No. 2 rushing offense in the league at 261.3 yards per game. All season long, the Muskies have relied on the versatility mobility of senior quarterback Ryan Maiuri, who leads the team in rushing (78.3 yards per game) and is also passing 165 yards a game.
"From an offensive standpoint we want to run the ball," said Zebrowski. "We want to play action off the run. The games we play well are the games we can run the ball with some success."
Lakeland and Augustana have one common opponent this season - Carthage. The Muskies fell to then-15th ranked Carthage 20-16 in Kenosha on Sept. 10, despite having a 13-0 lead in the third quarter. The Vikings won at Carthage 7-0 on Oct. 8. Carthage was one of the only teams to hold Augustana to under 300 yards rushing this season, as they limited the Vikings to just 131 rushing yards.
Lakeland's players are benefiting this week from a staff that includes four coaches that have experience either coaching or playing against Augustana, including a couple have done both.
"The only way that helps is that we can tell the kids we are familiar with Augustana," said Zebrowski, who faced then-conference foe Augie during his time at Millikin. "We can talk with them during the week about how strong of a program they are, how well they do what they do. That is the best we can do. At least it is not an unknown opponent that you have never played, seen or heard of. Everyone has heard of Augustana. I think it helps the kids know that we do know what to expect a little bit."
While the coaches will be spending plenty of time pouring over game tape, the one thing that is certain is the Lakeland coaching staff wants their athletes to enjoy this experience no matter the outcome. The players seem to be having no problems doing that.
"It means everything in the world," said Maiuri. "This is what we work for. We wanted to win conference outright and then make it to the playoffs. This just means everything to us."
"For us, this is the accomplishment of just a huge goal," Van De Loo said. "First of all, just the fact this is the first time Lakeland has gone to the playoffs and second of all, if we win this round, it will be the first win in conference history, and that would be a big step for us."