Lions run away from Rockers


Willie Brown, The Chart

Junior slotback Travis Hurd breaks away from a South Dakota Mines defender on homecoming weekend in Joplin. The Lions would go on to rack up 421 rushing yards in the game.

For a homecoming game, Missouri Southern’s first time on the field against South Dakota Mines couldn’t have gone any better.

The Lions racked up nearly 500 yards of total offense, coming within 82 yards of breaking the all-time single game rushing record in the process.

Needless to say, the team won big, crushing the Hard Rockers 47-20.

This week, however, the Lions have a much bigger task to tackle: taking down down the No. 4 Missouri Western Griffons.

“Offensively, they have the right guys in the right spots,” Southern Head Coach Daryl Daye said. “It’s pretty easy to see they’re doing what’s best for their talent.”

The Griffons, 6-0 so far this season, started their year with what some would have called a shocking 12-point victory over Central Missouri. This comes after Division-II playoff appearances the last two years.

A victory for the Lions, however, would be their third in four years against the upstate conference foe, including a thriller in 2010 in which Southern used a frantic fourth quarter comeback to stun the then-12th-ranked Griffons.

Daye believes his players are ready to pull off another upset.

“I definitely don’t sit here thinking we’re going to go up there and, you know, expect to get beaten,” he said. “I don’t think there’s ever been a game that we didn’t think we could find a way to win.”

The big play was huge for Southern against Mines, as the Lions scored four times from more than 40 yards out, including a 43-yard interception returned for a touchdown by junior linebacker Gatlin Ridgeway.

“It was just being in the right place at the right time,” Ridgeway said. “I just had that one ball fall in my lap, so I got kind of lucky. But other than that, it’s preparation that gets you where you want to be.”

And prepare the Lions have.

This week, the team has come into practices with a renewed sense of focus, ready for the challenge that awaits them tomorrow.

Daye said that in practice the team has played with more confidence after last week’s game and has been more disciplined, drawing fewer penalties than normal.That will be key in this game as the star-studded defensive front for the Lions goes up against the ninth-best rushing offense in the country. Michael Hill, Western’s leading rusher, already has 1,000 yards on the season. He’s averaging over nine yards per carry.

“It comes down to stopping the run, again,” Daye said. “We’ve got to stop the run. To play effective football and to have the opportunity to win the game, we have to stop the run first. I know he’s [Western Head Coach Jerry Partridge] the kind that, he’ll come out, and he’s going to make you stop the run first.”

Stopping the run has been a bright spot for the Lions so far this year. They’ve earned a No. 11 national ranking in run defense.

The big boys up front have held opposing offenses to just 89 yards per game and have been a factor in the passing game as well.

In fact, Brandon Williams, All-American defensive tackle, tied the Missouri Southern all-time record for sacks against the Hard Rockers. He’ll look to take sole possession of the record against an experienced Western team.

One thing missing from this year’s Griffons is the leg of Greg Zuerlein, who now kicks his regular 50-yard bombs for the St. Louis Rams.

“This [kicker]’s pretty good, too,” Daye said. “He’s hit some nice kicks, and he kicks off very well.”

A kickoff created a problem for the Lions against Mines last week when a live ball wasn’t picked up. Mines recovered and took possession inside the Southern 5-yard line.

Daye said that problem was addressed in practice and won’t happen again.

What seems likely to happen again, however, will be a couple catches for star wideout Landon Zerkel.

Daye has promised in recent weeks to get the Webb City native involved in the offense, and the preseason All-American hasn’t disappointed.

Zerkel had just over 100 yards on a handful of catches through four games, but he’s produced over 200 yards on just five catches the last two games.

“Each week, we’re growing and getting better, from the offensive line to every position out there, and especially Kellen [Cox, senior quarterback],” Zerkel said. “You can see him grow every week, so it’s exciting. The more that we can do, the better we feel like we can do on Saturdays, so it’s exciting to see everything come together.”

Zerkel and the rest of the Lions will be ready at 1:30 tomorrow at Spratt Stadium in St. Joseph.

“They understand they’re sitting here 4-2 with an opportunity. Hey, why not us?’” Daye said. “Why not us? We can. So let’s go to work, and anything can happen. It’s football. You put your work in, and anything can happen on Saturday.”