Road to title goes through Bears’ den

Jeff Reynolds

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Randy Ball surpassed Ray “Rock” Hanson with his 57th victory to become the winningest football coach in school history. Senior running back Aaron Stecker returned to form, rushing for 188 yards on a record-tying 39 carries. And senior linebacker James Milton and the Leatherneck defense pitched a shutout against the No. 1-ranked team in the country. Why worry?”There’s really two ways our guys could approach it,” Ball, ‘Neck head coach, said. “It (last week’s win) can either increase the hunger and the want to achieve more or you can sit back and say ‘wow, that was good.’ I think our guys will still be hungry.”

Entering their sixth game of the season with a 4-1 record, the ‘Necks hope to avoid a mental letdown this week against Southwest Missouri State University (2-2, 1-0). The Bears roll out the welcoming party in a similar situation, having defeated the University of Northern Iowa Panthers 24-21 last week, handing UNI their first home loss in 10 years.

“That’s a big win for them at Northern Iowa, who they haven’t beaten in many years,” Ball said. “With both teams getting big wins, this game will boil down to senior leadership.”

SMSU’s two losses have both come at the hands of Division I opponents – the University of Tulsa, 49-14, and Arkansas State University, 28-24 – and UNI has been their only conference opponent.

Five-foot-11-inch senior Maurice Daniels ran for 101 yards on just 14 carries, helping the Bears rack up 160 yards on the ground against the Panthers last week. The ‘Necks have contained rushing offenses so far this season, but their main concern will be stopping senior quarterback Derek Jensen and the SMSU air attack.

“They’ll use eight different receivers in a lot of formations,” Ball said. “They have a solid passing offense and their quarterback, a fifth-year senior, has an outstanding arm.

” Jensen threw for 296 yards in the UNI Dome in Cedar Falls, Iowa, last Saturday, as six different receivers collected 30 yards or more through the air.

The Bears do tend to hibernate on defense, where they gave up 100 rushing yards and 300 yards passing last week, something junior quarterback Mark Zanders and his core of receivers hope to capitalize upon.

“We’ve got to be able to throw the ball more effectively,” Ball said. “I’d look for us to increase the number of passes we throw this week.

Last week we threw around 18 times and we’ll get that up around 20 to 25 this week.” Stecker turned in his best performance of the ’98 campaign against Youngstown State University with nearly 200 yards rushing, tying the school record with 39 carries and chewing up several minutes on the clock while the ‘Necks were ahead in the second half, earning him Gateway Football Conference Offensive Player of the Week honors.

“He’s definitely back to 100 percent after last week,” Ball said. “From here on through the season I just expect him to get better and better.”

Defensively, the ‘Necks are led by senior linebackers Milton and Edgerton Hartwell, who have each topped the 70-tackle mark in five games.

Milton recorded a career-high 23 tackles last week against YSU, pushing his team-leading total to 74, marking the first time the Penguins had been shut out in 38 games.

The last ‘Neck defense to hold their opponents to under 10 points in three consecutive games was in 1964.

“Personally, it’s something the coaching staff and I expect,” Ball said. “They’re well-coached.

We’ve got great defensive coaches who put in a lot of time and the defense has leadership and experience.”

Seniors defensive tackle Paul Breed and defensive back Donnie Caldwell are both expected to play this week, recovering from injuries they suffered over the last two weeks.

The ‘Necks will be without junior defensive lineman Tony Zitzka, who will be serving a one-game suspension for disciplinary reasons.