MARSHALL - An end-of-season game between two teams with losing records isn't the most appealing of matchups for college football fans, but speaking to Southwest Minnesota State head coach Cory Sauter and his players, there's probably been no game during the season that they have wanted to win more than today's finale against Augustana.
Sauter was quick to tick off the reasons that make this game between two 4-6 teams so important.
"There are just so many things to play for in this ballgame," Sauter said. "For one, we're playing at home. It's the last game of the season, the last game for our seniors, a chance to beat Augie, a chance to get some momentum going into the offseason and in recruiting. ... This is essentially our bowl game."
History heavily favors the Vikings, who have won 14 straight meetings with SMSU dating back to 1995. The Mustangs have also never defeated one of the four teams from the former North Central Conference - Augustana, Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud State and Minnesota State-Mankato - since those teams joined the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference in 2008.
But this season hasn't been a typical one for Augustana, which will finish with its first losing season since 2007, its final season in the NCC. Though they have the second-best offense in the NSIC, the Vikings have found themselves coming up short in close games. They fell to Sioux Falls 32-31 in double overtime three weeks ago when the two teams renewed their heated rivalry. They also fell to Minnesota-Duluth, Wayne State and the University of Mary by eight points or less.
Last weekend was a low point for the Vikings, as they gave up an NSIC record 781 yards of total offense in a 73-35 home loss to Winona State.
The Mustangs, who have also had their struggles on the season, have no sympathy for their visitor.
"For me, I grew up in Sioux Falls, so I've been wanting to beat Augie ever since I came here," said SMSU safety Joe Stupka, a senior defensive captain. "They definitely have a lot of great athletes, a lot of guys that I actually played with in high school, so I know a lot of their team. They've been on the short end of things and hopefully they'll be on the short end of things one more time."
Though not to the extent of their counterpart, the Mustangs also had a rough game against Winona State two weeks ago when they lost 47-20 on the road. But SMSU rebounded last week with a 35-28 home win over Concordia-St. Paul, which was highlighted by a key interception in the end zone by cornerback Donovan Woods to prevent a game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
"We've been in quite a few close games this year and have actually done better late in games when the game's on the line," Sauter said. "It was good to see us come together as a total team, not just one side of the ball, but all three phases did their part and did enough to win the ballgame.
"I'm really proud with the way these guys have battled because after that loss to Crookston (on Sept. 8, which snapped a 39-game NSIC losing streak for the Golden Eagles), you just never knew how the team would respond. Would it turn into a downward spiral or would they hold tight? Those guys really played well and I'm proud of that fact."
It's been a hallmark of this year's Mustang team to bounce back strong after a gut-check loss. Now they hope to put together back-to-back wins for the first time this season in their final chance to do so.
Today's game, which kicks off at 1 p.m. at Mattke Field, will be the final game in the careers of 18 Mustang seniors, including some key offensive playmakers like quarterback Tyler Peschong and running backs Warren Matthews and Gannon Moore. For a group that has seen more defeats than victories, beating Augustana would not only put a nice finishing touch on the seniors' careers, but give the returning group of Mustangs a boost going into the future.
"From the start of fall camp, I noticed that this was a different team with a different attitude, and I hope they can keep carrying that in future years because it's been great," Matthews said. "It's really changed and Mustang football is doing a big turnaround right now, and I'm glad to have been a part of it.
"There have been plenty of ups and downs, unfortunately more downs than ups, but at the end of the day, we've come back together and every Sunday we've regrouped and came back the next week fighting to try to come back with a victory. It's been good. Everyone's just been fighting and never giving up no matter what happened. We've been staying together, staying a family and just fighting until the end."