LeTheo Proctor spins after catching a pass at a chilly Vikings practice on Wednesday.
It was a chilly preview of the the not-so-warm welcome they are apt to receive from the Carroll College Fighting Saints on Saturday.
On a blustery Wednesday afternoon practice at Shelly Ellig Field, the VCSU Vikings sported sweats under their practice jerseys and athletic tape over the ear holes of their helmets to keep the cold at bay. General griping arose about the frozen water coolers, and the lightly frozen turf crackled crisply underfoot.
With a 70 percent chance of snow in Helena, Mont., Friday night and a projected high of 16 degrees Saturday afternoon, the Vikings will have to acclimate to cold temperatures in a hurry. The natural turf at Carroll's Nelson Stadium is going to be unforgiving, and the 1-3 inches of snow that is expected on Friday won't help matters much.
"We've been practicing out in it, we haven't heard our kids complain at all. It's not gonna be as cold if you're playing well," said Defensive Coordinator Gregg Horner.
Weather aside, the team has a simple game plan, says Head Coach Dennis McCulloch.
"Match up front physically, slow the run, make them take more snaps. We're not going to shut them down offensively by any means, but a big key for our defense will be don't give up the backbreaking 60-yard run."
Offensively, McCulloch said the Vikings will have to take to the air despite the frigid weather. "The biggest question is," he asked, "can you throw and catch in the cold? You have to adjust - that's the measure of a good football team, being able to adapt to climate and field conditions."
VCSU's defense will have to focus on stopping the run, an area where they have struggled in 2011.
"We're going to have to commit a bunch of guys to the run, but not so many that they'll beat us over the top," said Horner. "They have an excellent quarterback and a great passing game as well, we just need to play our game."
Carroll running back Chance DeMarais leads NAIA Division I teams in rushing with 1,422 total yards, and will be looking for any holes he can find to torch the Vikings' D. Although Demarais sat out Carroll's win over MSU-Northern last Saturday with an unspecified knee ailment, he is rested and scheduled to play this weekend.
"You can throw all the stats and that stuff out," Horner said, "it'll come down to our execution on the field. Our kids really understand the challenge and are on top of who's next, what play is next."
After one last home practice, the team will depart on the first leg of their long road trip today, driving to Billings, Mont., to spend the night, and they will cover the three hour jump to Helena on Friday.
"That last trip to Chicago really set us up for this, our kids are used to it," said Horner of the travel time.
The Vikings certainly have their work cut out for them in attempting to take down a forceful Carroll dynasty, helmed by Head Coach Mike Van Diest, that has won six NAIA titles since 2002.
"(Carroll) has had this sustained success - we know their status, but what we can control is to go out and play our best game this year," said McCulloch. "Mistakes stand out so much more against a team like this."
The Valley City State Vikings (9-1), will take on the Carroll (Mont.) College Fighting Saints (10-1) Saturday, Nov. 19, at 1:07 p.m. Central Time, at Nelson Stadium, Helena, Mont.
You can follow the Viking football team this Saturday at www.livestream.com/fightingsaints, listen to the game on KOVC 1490, follow live Twitter updates on @VCSUVikings, and view up-to-the-minute game stats at www.dakstats.com/websync/pages/webcasts.aspx?association=10
*All rankings are for NAIA Division I 2011 Season
Players to Watch:
Valley City State University
QB Tommy Zinke: 24 TD passes, #8 in NAIA Pass Efficiency (153.7), 228 yds./game total offense.
RB AJ Pfeifer: #11 in NAIA Total Rushing Yards (1,049).
WR LeTheo Proctor: #13 in NAIA Total Receiving Yards (872).
DL Jordan Maher: #4 (tie) in NAIA Total Sacks (11.5), #2 in sacks per game.
QB Dane Broadhead: 23 TD passes, regular season averaged 159 yds./game total offense.
RB Chance Demarais: #1 in NAIA in regular season rushing, averaged 142 rushing yards per game with 14 rushing TDs and 1,422 total yards.
WR Matt Ritter: #8 in NAIA total receiving yds. (906), 12 receiving TDs.
WR Mike Siegersma: #8 in NAIA total interceptions (6).
By the Numbers:
-The Saints are ranked second in fourth down conversions, with a 72 percent conversion rate; the Vikings come in at a 55 percent success rate on fourth down.
-Valley City State has a No. 2-ranked pass defense, and is 17th in scoring defense, allowing just 18 points per game to Carroll's 16. Carroll's defense leads the NAIA in sacks (37), while VCSU has notched 25.
-Special teams could also be an equalizer for the Vikings, with their field goal completions at 66.7 percent compared to Carroll's 37 percent. Both teams are neck-and-neck in kickoff and punt return averages.
-VCSU is currently ranked #12 in the NAIA, the highest ranking for the team since the 2002 season when they were #10 on two separate occasions.
-This is the eighth trip to the national playoffs in Viking history.
-This year, VCSU is the only NAIA team in North or South Dakota to advance to the playoffs.
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- No. 2-ranked Carroll (Mont.) won its sixth NAIA National Championship last year, which is one away from tying the most ever by a NAIA program.
-The Fighting Saints have also posted more victories since 2000 than the likes of NCAA Division I programs Oklahoma, Boise State and Montana. Among any four-year football institution in the country â€” which includes the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), Division II and Division III â€” Carroll sits in second in overall wins since 2000 with a 148-15 (.908) mark.