A victory stopped the bleeding in the standings for the Southwestern University Pirates, though bumps, bruises, aches, sprains and more continue to trickle down the depth chart.
The Pirates earned some short praise for pulling together to defeat the Belhaven Blazers 31-21 on the road, even if it is short-lived with the defending national champion and No. 1-ranked University of Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders visiting on Saturday.
"We're in a place right now where we're different schematically every week based on who's available and what they can do," Head Coach Joe Austin said.
The Pirates have lost both meetings against the Crusaders since joining the American Southwest Conference in 2017, losing 77-7 on the road last season and 44-10 the year prior to that.
Last season, the Crusaders racked up 398 yards of total offense to 237 for the Pirates, taking advantage of eight Southwestern turnovers.
Season to Date
Mary Hardin-Baylor has faced few challenges this season with its smallest margin of victory a 23-13 victory over Belhaven University in Week 2.
For the season, the Crusaders are winning by an average of 46.2 points, averaging 54.6 points per game, which ranks second in the nation and first in the ASC.
Most recently, the Crusaders defeated East Texas Baptist University 50-14, getting stellar performances from linebacker Akeem Jackson and kicker Anthony Avila, earning national recognition on D3Football.com's Team of the Week.
Jackson forced three turnovers, intercepting two passes and forcing a fumble, while racking up 10 tackles.
The Pirates started the season strong with a defense that returned 10 starters and a running game balanced just enough by Coleman Kerr's passing. Injuries have forced the Pirates to adjust on the fly with Southwestern losing two games before rebounding against Belhaven with 31 consecutive points.
The Crusaders have the third-ranked scoring defense and second-ranked scoring offense in the nation, balancing a powerful running game (236.4 yards per game) with a passing attack that averaged 223.4 yards per game, capable of attacking all three levels of the field.
"They're so talented, it's really a challenge," Austin said. "We have to match up with Jonel Reed, their deep threat, and control their underneath screen game, all while keeping an eye on their running game."
Southwestern and Mary Hardin-Baylor lead the conference in yards per completion, though the second-ranked Crusaders come by their 16.67 average on a much greater volume.
Reed is the Crusaders' most targeted player, pulling down 16 receptions for 306 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 19.1 yards per reception.
Mary Hardin-Baylor boasts two senior quarterbacks, giving the Crusaders a wealth of experience. Jase Hammack is the listed starter on the depth chart, having completed 27 passes on 47 attempts for eight touchdowns with one interception.
The backup offers little reprieve for the Pirate defense. Luke Poorman has been even more efficient, completely 69.6 percent of his 46 passes for five touchdowns with no interceptions.
"The key for us is to be in defensive alignments that will give us a chance to defend all three phases, from the deep pass to the screen game to the running game," Austin said. "Our players have to stick to their assignments and doing what they're supposed to do every play."
With injuries thinning out the defensive backfield and linebacker corps, the Pirate defensive line will be the key, led by ASC sack leader Garrett Womack, Nicholas Smith, Grant Mitchell, and Nick Hackett.
"Our defensive line is our most intact group by far and we've gotten a lot of good play from different players," Austin said. "We're going to rely on those guys to help control the running game and it'll really take pressure off our secondary if they can also generate a pass rush."
Even amidst the injuries, the Pirates' defense has put together strong stretches of play, getting put in bad positions by turnovers against Texas Lutheran and spending too much time on the field against Sul Ross State.
Mary Hardin-Baylor ranks 20th in the nation in turnover margin, creating 14 while only giving away seven.
"We have to end every drive with a kick, whether it's a punt, field goal, or extra point," Austin said. "They do an amazing job of creating turnovers. We've got to sustain drives, get first downs, and move the ball down the field."
Having Coleman Kerr back at quarterback helps. The sophomore gives the Pirates access to more of its base offensive packages, completing 19-of-35 passes (54.3 percent) for 326 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
"He did a really good job last week of identifying the matchups he wanted to exploit and delivered some nice passes," Austin said. "He's still developing but he definitely took a step forward. We try to make things very defined for him to make it easy to go out and execute."
Southwestern also unveiled new offensive wrinkles with converted receiver J.J. Slack under center in a new I formation that asks the first year to run, throw, and even work as the lead blocker.
"It's a very unique system and J.J. is just a football player. He has a unique skill set," Austin said. "He can make tackles on special teams, run, throw, block.
"Having two contrasting styles gives opponents more to prepare more, giving them blocking from different angles and that can be to our advantage."