|There will be more at stake for Monmouth College than the traveling Bronze Turkey trophy when the Fighting Scots travel to Knox for a 1 p.m. kickoff Saturday.
A Monmouth win in the 121st meeting of the schools would: give coach Steve Bell his 78th career victory, tying Bill Reichow as the winningest coach in Fighting Scots football history; post the Scots' second consecutive 10-0 season and third since 2005; improve Monmouth's regular season win streak to 23 games; stretch Monmouth's series-record win streak to 11 games; and increase the Scots' current 60-50-10 advantage in the series which began in 1888.
Knox will give Monmouth's defense a test with its option attack, the second time the Scots have seen that style this season. Monmouth held Ripon's option game in Week 7 to just one touchdown and two long field goals and the Red Hawks' only two trips inside the red zone came up empty. Bell has a simple philosophy in defending the option - or any offensive scheme for that matter.
"The key is for us to win first down," said Bell. "We stress it to our defense every week. Win first down, get off the field on third down. That's it, regardless of the offense you face."
That strategy has paid off through the season's first nine games. Monmouth has held opponents to a mere 26 percent success rate on third down and just 38 percent on fourth down. Contrast that to the Scots' 52 percent conversion rate on third down and 56 percent on fourth down.
In order to beat the option, the Scots will have to contend with junior quarterback Bill Meyer. He's gained more than 300 yards and when he pitches on the option, it's usually to 225-pound freshman Derek Mortensen. The rookie back has amassed a team-high 362 yards on the ground with two touchdowns.
Meyer doesn't pass often - only 94 attempts this season - but when he does, it's primarily been to a trio of receivers. Derek LaRosa leads with 10 catches, but Brent Newman has gained team-highs of 146 yards and three TDs. Clarke Cuthbert is the third receiver in the mix, with nine catches for 118 yards.
"We'll have to be prepared for both phases of their offense," warned Bell. "We've got to stop the run first and get them in second-and-long situations. We need to be fundamentally sound and be aware of the pass. Like any option, you've got to stop the fullback, but the quarterback controls the game."
While Knox likes to hug the ground on offense, Monmouth has controlled the airspace. Junior quarterback Alex Tanney has thrown for more than 3,000 yards and 36 touchdowns this season. He averages more than 338 yards per game and is just 654 yards short of 10,000 for his career.
For their part, the Prairie Fire have picked off nine passes and recorded 12 sacks, led by senior defensive end Tighe Burke. The 6-foot-3, 230-pounder has sacked opposing quarterbacks six times and is second on the team with 65 tackles, including a team-best 13.5 tackles for loss. The versatile lineman has also lined up in the offensive backfield where he has scored two TDs to tie Mortensen for the team lead in rushing scores.
"He's one to be contended with because he's such a good pass rusher," proclaimed Bell. "Their other end does a good job, too."
Knox will need everyone to do a good job. The Scots have outscored their opponents 435-94 this season. They've also averaged nearly 525 yards per game while holding their opponents to just over 250 yards. They've been especially good against the run, surrendering just 90 yards per outing.
Coming off their first win of the season, outside observers may believe the Prairie Fire are facing a daunting task, but Bell is sure Knox will be ready.
"They're coming off a win and they'll be fired up," said Bell. "They'd like nothing more than to break our streak and end the season with a win. They have a lot of incentives to knock us off. It's a great college atmosphere, a great game and I hope there are plenty of fans there - for both sides. The game has such a great tradition that it deserves a lot of respect. It's just a fun game."
The Scots have had most of the fun in the last decade in the battle for the traveling trophy, although the Bronze Turkey hasn't done much traveling lately, roosting in Monmouth since 1999.
(Monmouth College Athletics)