By Austin Cannon
Conference play is here, and for the Bulldogs the beginning of the 2015 Pioneer Football League season will be similar to the end of the 2014 edition.
The Bulldogs return home Saturday afternoon by hosting Stetson at Drake Stadium, the same opponent they played to finish last season, beating the Hatters in Deland, Florida, 27-15.
Stetson is only in its third full season after a 55-year hiatus from football. The Hatters spent all of 2012 practicing before joining the PFL in 2013 and going 2-9.
Stetson’s season-ending loss to Drake was the first meeting between the two teams, a game that added an air of mystery to its preparation, especially for the offense.
“Last year’s Tuesday before Stetson was probably the most stressful practice that they’ve had in their memories,” head coach Rick Fox said, “because we knew so little about them and they present a lot of unique things defensively that, really, nobody else on our schedule will.”
One thing the rest of the PFL can’t come close to presenting is Donald Payne. The 6-foot-1, 217-pound safety was named the PFL’s defensive player of the year as a sophomore in 2014. He set a new PFL record and led the FCS with 185 tackles, including three games in which he recorded 20 or more. Against Campbell, he made a mind-boggling 30 tackles.
Payne tied for eighth in the PFL with 5.5 sacks, led the league in tackles for a loss (18.5) and tied for seventh with four interceptions. Through two games in 2014, he has 23 total tackles, including three for a loss.
“He’s the real deal,” Fox said. “He’ll probably be playing on Sunday here in the next few years.”
His presence could exacerbate the Bulldogs’ uncertainty at quarterback. Andy Rice is questionable after missing last week’s game against South Dakota. If he’s unable to play, last week’s starter, Cody Thibault, will step in. Thibault struggled last week at USD, going 14-for-37 for 147 yards and two interceptions.
While Stetson (1-1) is coming off a bye week, Drake (1-2) has lost two in a row and was shut out 52-0 at USD last week.
“We haven’t really thought about the last two games,” running back Conley Wilkins said.
The start of the conference season comes at the right time, forcing the Bulldogs to put the pair of nonconference losses behind them.
“There’s definitely a different feel in practice,” Wilkins said. “I know we’re trying to take this seriously more with conference play. It’s important that we start the first game with a W.”
Stetson was picked to finish sixth in the PFL preseason coaches’ poll after going 5-7 in its second season.
In last season’s finale, Drake led 20-15 at the beginning of the fourth quarter before embarking on a mammoth 21-play, 90-yard touchdown drive that took 9:05 off the clock. Stetson bailed Drake out early in the drive when Ryan Powers was flagged for defensive pass interference on third down.
It will be almost as if the two teams are picking up were they left off, especially the young Hatters, who didn’t lose many players to graduation.
“We know their personnel,” cornerback John Bloss said. “There’s not going to be a lot of surprises on that front. They’re doing the same things, we’re running kind of the same things, so it’s just going to come down to fundamentals: tackling, finding the ball, making plays.”