With so much of the season's hopes stripped away one injury at a time, the Southwestern University Pirates football team enters the last week of its season with nothing left but the original edict the program builds its foundations on.
"We're trying to reestablish what our philosophy has been from the start of the program, which is constant improvement," Head Coach Joe Austin said. "That's really all that's left. We lost even more starters last week, so really what there is to play for is enjoying the competition and getting better every practice."
They'll do so against a Hardin-Simmons University Cowboys football team ranked No. 13 in Division III by the AFCA and No. 15 by d3football.com.
"They're the best offense we're going to play. They're arguably the best offense in the conference," Head Coach Joe Austin said. "They've got two very good quarterbacks who were Division I transfers, all-conference running backs, four all-conference receivers, and four all-conference lineman. They don't have a weakness."
Hardin-Simmons is the No. 2-ranked scoring offense in the ASC, averaging 48.2 points per game, which ranks sixth in Division III. They're the top-ranked passing offense in the conference at 267.7 yards per game and first in rushing at 267 yards per game, bringing enough balance to stretch out an already distressed roster.
Since a loss to Texas Lutheran, the Cowboys have turned to Kyle Jones, who is in his first year with the program. In eight games, Jones has completed 61-of-77 passes for 1,093 yards, throwing 12 touchdowns with only two interceptions.
It will be a good crash course for a defense starting players who are still learning the rigors of college football and, in one case, learning his position after moving from offense to defense.
Defensive backs Peyton Ludemann and J.J. Slack led the Pirates in tackles last week against Howard Payne, combining for 17. Eight of Ludemann's nine tackles were solo tackles with one for a loss of four yards and one pass breakup.
"Peyton is a very smart player, so the more he plays, the more he understands and gets a feel for the game," Austin said. "I think his talent is starting to show, which is the mental aspect of the game. He's not the most physically dominant player but he makes up for it by being really smart and always being in the right position."
After staring the season as a receiver, moving to backup quarterback, and now sitting in as a full-time, every down defensive player, J.J. Slack has plugged holes wherever needed while being far more than a stop gap option. Against Howard Payne, Slack had eight tackles, including six solo tackles, with one forced fumble.
"He's just a really good, natural football player. His instincts allow him to come in and play so many different roles," Austin said. "He has a knack for where the ball is, he has a knack for blocking and running, so he just has an exceptional understanding of the game. As a first year, the game is not too fast for him, which is really nice."
Offensively, the Pirates will be leaning on Coleman Kerr once more as injuries continue to leave the quarterback position a revolving door predicated on health.
With a number of other injuries sustained last week, Kerr will step into the role absent a few familiar targets against a defense that ranks second in the ASC, surrendering only 230 yards per game.
"Their defensive line is disruptive, fast, and agile," Austin said. "They have very good linebackers and defensive backs but the strength is their defensive line. They play three or four-man fronts, so they have good versatility. It'll be a challenge for our guys."
Down four starters on defense and five on offense, the Pirates haven't been so depleted since Southwestern was a startup program. The success measured by wins and loss on the record books now must be measured by wins each possession and stacking up enough to show tangible improvement.
"It's unfortunate we won't be able to face them with our intended team because I think we've played these guys really tough the last two years," Austin said. "It's going to be tough to hang in there so all you can do is get back to your messaging of let's control what we can control, which is our attitude and our effort, and get better throughout the week and throughout the game."