The bye week could not have come at a better time for the McPherson College football team.
The Bulldogs enter the break with a 2-1 record, which probably has surprised some folks around the KCAC. They own victories over teams picked ahead of them in the preseason polls (Bethany and Southwestern) and lost to a team picked below them (Avila, which is laughing at the pollsters as it is 3-0 and receiving national votes).
The Bulldogs are coming off a 3-7 season, but fourth-year coach Paul Mierkiewicz has been building the program steadily. From a start of almost all freshmen and sophomores on his roster in 2015, he now has a team heavily influenced by seniors and juniors as he’s done a good job with retention.
The Bulldogs went into the bye week after a physically grueling 45-35 win over a Southwestern team that many believed would challenge for the KCAC’s Top 3. Mac trailed 21-7 early, but its explosive offense caught fire and began the second half with 17 points in three possessions. The defense pitched a fourth-quarter shutout and made the plays when it had to.
“If I had my choice, and I’ve had that choice in the past, this about the right time for it,” Mierkiewicz said of the open date. “Some of the guys haven’t been home since they got dropped off for orientation (back in early August). They’re going to get a chance to go home and then get back here on Sunday.”
The Bulldogs recovered nicely from the shock of giving up 54 points and more than 700 yards to Avila. They put up nearly 600 yards of their own against Southwestern and quarterback Ed Crouch was named the KCAC’s Offensive Player of the Week for his performance, but he had a lot of help.
Receivers Brandt Wolters and Ben Nikkel were both over 100 yards, and backs Armond McCray and Corey Davis picked up key rushing first downs when the Bulldogs were trying to protect their second-half lead. And not allowing points in the fourth quarter was something the Bulldogs haven’t done in the past.
“I think defensively there are some things we still need to work on,” Mierkiewicz said. “The off week allows you to work on those things.”
But the offense has been a powder keg, with 106 points in three games and that’s with it still being a work in progress.
“Where I’m the most happy is where we needed that drive in the fourth quarter against Southwestern, we were able to mix the pass and run and it was something like 6-plus minutes and that makes your defense great because they get to rest,” Mierkiewicz said. “Our running game has been better, though I don’t think we ran it great against Avila. But I thought when we needed it, we ran it. I felt comfortable as a playcaller that on a 3rd-and-1 we were able to run the ball when everybody in the joint knew we were going to and get the first down.”
Mierkiewicz said another benefit of the open week is getting some players back who have been banged up. Mac should be relatively healthy going into next Saturday’s home game against Friends, which has struggled to an 0-4 start. The Falcons are staring 0-5 in the face as they go up against defending KCAC champion Sterling on Saturday.
“If you’re not injured, you’re hurt at this point in the season,” Mierkiewicz said, noting he’s tailored his practice schedule to keep his team in the best possible shape it can be.
So far, Avila, Ottawa and Kansas Wesleyan are undefeated in KCAC play, though KW has played one less game. Mac, Saint Mary and Tabor all have one loss, though Saint Mary and Tabor have played only two games so far. Sterling is 1-2 in the KCAC after being picked to win it in the preseason.
“Sterling has kind of surprised me a little, but they’ve had a tough schedule,” Mierkiewicz said. “I had a pretty good idea Kansas Wesleyan was going to be pretty good. Tabor and Saint Mary have only played two games. We’ll see how it plays out over the weekend.”