MARSHALL - When St. Cloud State and Southwest Minnesota State meet today in the Ag Bowl, the Huskies and Mustangs will get their first taste of live football.
Southwest Minnesota State head coach Cory Sauter says the Mustangs are ready to start the 2013 season after participating in training camp the last three weeks.
"I would say that we're very anxious to get out there and actually play a game," Sauter said. "We have put in a lot of work and ... add to that ... the weather. I just think we're ready to play because we feel the excitement of it being that time of year."
Kickoff is slated for 6 p.m. at Mattke Field at the Schwan Regional Event Center. The game is the season opener for both teams.
Sauter said he will be looking to see how SMSU reacts to game situations.
"I think we'll find out quite a bit about ourselves (today)," Sauter said. "I am looking to see the intensity that's required to play in the Northern Sun. I want to see what we're going to be like as a team. Are we going to stick together when things go good? I want to see how we will respond from that. I also want to look our players in the eyes and see if they have the desire to compete."
Junior quarterback Charlie Kern will be making his first start and will have the protection of five experienced senior offensive linemen - center Brandon Puffer, tackles Kyle Johnson and Alex Sedrel and guards Jake Thiel and Justin Knakmuhs.
"We feel good about our five guys up front because that is where everything starts,"?Sauter said. "(With having all of them back), you couldn't ask for a better situation, especially with (quarterback)?Charlie Kern getting his first start, knowing that he has five guys in front of him who are going to battle for him."
Sauter says the offensive line will be instrumental in holding SMSU's offense together.
"They have high expectations for themselves," Sauter said of the Mustangs' offensive linemen. "We want to make sure that we protect our passer and create running lanes for our running back. They can help us eliminate missed assignments because, a lot of times, teams that lose beat themselves."
The Huskies, who are traditionally a pass-happy team, feature Phillip Klaphake at quarterback. He completed 178 of 303 passing attempts for 2,760 yards with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 28-to-6. Klaphake returns as St. Cloud State's top rusher, carrying the ball 141 times for 607 yards (4.3 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns.
"St. Cloud has a very good quarterback in Phillip Klaphake. He's about as good as they come in our conference beacause he is a smart kid who can run and throw,"?Sauter said. "St. Cloud is traditionally a shotgun team that runs a lot of no-huddle offense. Very rarely are they going to run a play for negative yardage."
Klaphake was named as the Northern Sun Intercollgiate Conference North Division's Preseason Offensive Player of the Year.
"They have experienced receivers that are all threats because St. Cloud has had guys who can throw the ball and guys who provide protection for them," Sauter said. "On defense, they are usually fairly simple, but they have playmakers that take advantage of mistakes. They have been very good against the pass and they will blitz as much as they need."
Huskies defensive back Jack Moro was picked at the NSIC North Division's Preseason Defensive Player of the Year.
Sauter believes a key matchup will be the Mustangs' secondary against St. Cloud State receivers. SMSU safety Tate Bunkers was named an NSIC Player to Watch this season.
"It's going to be an interesting matchup because, during practice, our defensive backs are going to be a little bit more aggressive because there is no scoreboard associated with practice. If they get beat then, they get beat," Sauter said. "I want to see how they're going to react during a live situation because that will be for real. If we can generate some type of pass rush, that will help out our secondary."
That pass rush could come from SMSU defensive end A.J. Page, who made 66 tackles and had three sacks in 2012.
"Controlling the line of scrimmage is going to go a long way in determining the outcome of this game," Sauter said. "If the game is being played on our half of the line of scrimmage, that will not be a good situation. If we're controlling the line of scrimmage, then that is when our running backs can turn five-yard runs into 50-yarders."
Sauter is happy with the overall health of the Mustangs.
"We have a couple of game-time decisions on a few guys as far as some guys on our defensive line," Sauter said. "We have practiced with a lot of different guys in case certain guys can't play. I feel good about the group of guys we have going out there on our offense and defense."