NAIA Gridiron Challenge Preview

Story by Jim Joyner, Sports Editor

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The No. 2 Baker University football team will take on the No. 19 Benedictine Ravens in the first NAIA Gridiron Challenge at 7 p.m. Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. The Wildcats have won seven of their last eight games against the Ravens.

“We’ve gotten to this point, exactly where we want to be, and we’re playing our rival at Arrowhead,” head coach Mike Grossner said. “It couldn’t get any bigger than this.”

Baker is undefeated in its first five games of the season and has been ranked second in the NAIA Coaches’ Top 25 Poll for three consecutive weeks. The Baker defense is allowing just 13.2 points per game, which is fourth in the NAIA.

Last year’s matchup against Benedictine was the only blemish in the Wildcats’ conference season. Baker led 28-20 in the fourth quarter and ended up giving up three touchdowns late to lose 42-28. Up until that game, Baker was giving up 35.3 points per game, and after the loss, it gave up only 14.1 points per game for the remainder of the season.

After losing to the Ravens, Baker would go on to win its next nine games and would tie with Benedictine and Missouri Valley for the Heart of America Athletic Conference title.

This season, junior linebacker Tucker Pauley leads the team in tackles with 35, including seven behind the line of scrimmage. Freshman Keith Loneker Jr. has also been solid at linebacker with 31 tackles total, seven of which came last week against Peru State.

Up front, sophomore Nick Becker has made 26 tackles. Freshman Josh Kock has been strong in the defensive line, as he has made 21 tackles, including a team best 7.5 tackles for loss, and three sacks.

Senior Camren Torneden has led the way for the ground game in 2014, averaging nearly 82 yards per game. Torneden has been efficient in his runs, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Both of Torneden’s touchdowns this season have had huge results. The first was in the Ottawa game when he broke off a 50-yard run to seal the victory, and his second was last week at Peru State when Torneden once again sealed the game with a 10-yard scamper. Torneden also holds the second best NAIA kickoff return average with 50 yards per return on five attempts.

Baker’s starting quarterback for the first five games was sophomore Nick Marra. Due to an injury, Marra missed the majority of the game against Peru State last weekend and will sit out on Saturday as well.

“Nick (Marra) will be out about four weeks,” Grossner said. “We’ll make a decision on Jake Heller and Logan Brettell. Both have had a good week of practice, and we’ll go from there.”

Heller, a junior, will more than likely be the starting quarterback this Saturday. Heller came into the game with nine minutes to go in the second quarter against Peru State and ran the show from there on. He finished the game 14 of 28 passing for 202 yards.

The quarterbacks will throw to many receivers, including juniors Jeremy Immenschuh and Dylan Perry. The two combined for seven receptions and 146 yards at Peru State.

Baker will also have the reigning HAAC Special Teams Player of the Week in Brettell, who is a freshman. Brettell has hit 90 percent of his extra points and all four field goals this season, including a 43-yard field goal before halftime at Peru State last week.

Against Peru State, Brettell scored a 2-yard touchdown on a fake field goal with one minute to go in the third quarter. The touchdown put Baker up 17-10 and would eventually be the decider in the Wildcats’ fifth consecutive win.

Brettell, like sophomore Clarence Clark last season, plays two different positions offensively. Clark was a wide receiver and the kicker in 2013 through his All-American freshman season. Brettell has the possibility of playing both quarterback and kicker as this season moves forward.

“I’ll have the same mindset going in as I did with Clarence (Clark),” Grossner said. “If he can handle both, we’ll do it.

Baker has been fortunate enough to have a lot of depth at the kicking position this season with sophomore Rolando Perez and freshman Abram Garcia.

“Abram hit a 44-yarder against Ottawa in the JV game so we’ve got guys in case Logan can’t do it,” Grossner said.

The Benedictine Ravens will head into Saturday’s game with a 3-2 record and 2-1 in the conference. The biggest factor for Benedictine so far this season has been junior running back Tyler Henness, who is second in the nation in rushing yards with 733 and 146.6 yards per game.

“If you look at the stats, they’re rushing the ball well with the Hennis kid, they’ve got a new quarterback, a big 6-5 kid who throws the ball well down the field,” Grossner said. “He’s got a good set of receivers, always big in the O-line, so it’s the same team offensively.”

Benedictine has been solid offensively this season, averaging over 400 yards per game, but its defense has been hit hard for 360 yards per game. The Ottawa Braves scored 59 points against the Ravens in week two and Missouri Valley scored 29 against them in week four.

The first game of the NAIA Gridiron Challenge will feature No. 7 Missouri Valley and MidAmerica Nazarene University and will start at 3 p.m. Both teams come into the game 3-1 on the season, but Missouri Valley holds a perfect 3-0 record in the conference.