KEARNEY — The buzz around the University of Nebraska at Kearney football team couldn’t be louder.
The Lopers have entered the NCAA Division II rankings for the first time in 10 years. They’re coming off a road win at always-tough Pittsburg State — a win that garnered quarterback TJ Davis the MIAA Offensive Player of the Week award and linebacker Zach Schlager the Defensive Player of the Week award.
It was the fifth straight win for the Lopers who haven’t lost since: Washburn 57, UNK 41, in the 2019 regular-season finale.
Today (Saturday) Washburn again visits Kearney for a 1 p.m. game at Ron and Carol Cope Stadium at Foster Field. And after the game, there will be one fewer team atop the MIAA standings, a rung that includes No. 3-ranked Northwest Missouri State and Emporia State.
Washburn has been a thorn in the side of UNK since the Lopers joined the MIAA, winning seven of the eight games. The Ichabods have also piled on the points, scoring 58 and 60 on UNK as well as the 57 in 2019.
“They’re a good football team, a really well-coached football team,” UNK coach Josh Lynn said. “One thing too is, they always match our physicality. And another thing is, defensively they play as hard as anybody we’ll play. Offensively, they run the ball, they pass the ball, and they execute at a high level. ... And, for some reason, we just haven’t played our best football games against them.”
The Ichabods haven’t lost a step on offense this year. They lit up Lincoln for 76 points before beating Central Missouri 29-10 in Game 2, which was a Thursday night game, giving them extra time to focus on UNK.
They may have had to make some adjustments after watching UNK against Pittsburg State. Davis had his best game as a passer, completing 11 of 17 passes for 198 yards and three touchdowns.
The effective passing game is something Lynn knows the Lopers have to show to open the doors for the triple-option running attack. Pittsburg State loaded the box, daring UNK to throw. It’s a defensive scheme Lynn expects to see often.
“If we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, that’s what team should be doing to us. And, I hope they do,” he said. “We need to be able to throw the ball and throw the ball effectively. If they’re going to give us the pass, we have to be able to throw the ball.”
Going along with the solid passing performance by the offense, the UNK defense answered the call with three interceptions against the Gorillas and against one of the top quarterbacks in the MIAA, Mak Sexton.
They’ll face another top quarterback in Washburn’s Mitch Schurig and Lynn said the pass defense starts up front.
“We got some pressure (on Sexton). It wasn’t always a sack, but we’re making those quarterbacks feel it. That was a big part of it. ... And, not only that, maybe it’s kids growing up, We’re a little bit older in the secondary than we normally are, especially those corners, they’ve played a lot of football and we’re a little deeper in the secondary so we’ve got a couple more guys who can play back there,” he said.
Lynn also would have liked to intercept the excitement around the ratings. He said the players don’t talk about the ratings in front of him, but he knows it’s in their conversations off the field.
“I’m sure that’s been discussed,” he said. “Oh, it’s nice and it’s good for the program, but I wish we weren’t. I kind of like being the underdog and having the chip on our shoulder.”