By Austin Cannon
After solidifying their reputation of success at Drake Stadium against Stetson, the Bulldogs head to North Carolina on Saturday to face the Campbell Camels.
Drake has an opportunity to reverse what has so far been a tough season on the road. The Bulldogs dropped both their road contests this season to a pair of FCS scholarship programs, North and South Dakota. Now in Pioneer Football League play, the away games become even more important.
“What separates the middle of the pack from the top of the pack is how you play on the road in the PFL,” head coach Rick Fox said.
With starting quarterback Andy Rice returning from an undisclosed injury, the Bulldogs will have a steady hand guiding the offense. Rice missed the past two games; Cody Thibault started in his place, struggling against South Dakota before throwing three touchdowns against Stetson last week.
“It’s great to have him back, but it’s been a few weeks so he’s got to shake off that rust a little bit,” Fox said.
Rice will have to shake if off quickly against the PFL’s leader in total defense. The Camels so far have only allowed 266 yards per game.
“We’re just going to take what they give us,” Rice said.
Campbell is especially good against the run, allowing only 3.3 yards per carry. The Drake offensive line, which dominated the line of scrimmage against Stetson, will again have to step up. The unit, already missing guards Aaron Melton and Al Hern, will be without another starter this week. Center John McMahon is out with a concussion.
Tackle Jack Beck, in his third year starting, is the only lineman who’s played every snap in 2015. Saturday will be his 27th consecutive start.
“I think the older guys, me and Aaron (Johnson), have had to step up quite a bit, but I also think the young guys have come in and done a good job of coming in and being able to take constructive criticism and learning on the fly,” Beck said.
Against the Camels’ hefty defensive front, the line will have to do all it can to create lanes for Conley Wilkins.
“They’ve got some really big guys, so I think it’s going to be just using our technique, staying low, make sure we maintain blocks, and a lot of it is also going to be getting them laterally displaced,” Beck said.
Campbell is good at defending the run, but the Camels are even better at running it themselves. They average a PFL-leading 5.2 yards per carry, and running back DeShawn Jones is averaging a ridiculous 7.2 yards per carry through four games. It’s a sizable jump in quality from the Stetson rushing attack that ran for a total of zero yards against Drake last week.
“We’re not going to hold them to zero yards rushing like we did this past Saturday,” Fox said. “They’re going to have their plays; we understand that, but overall we’ve got to win that.”
The Bulldogs lead the PFL in rushing defense, allowing only three yards per carry, but Jones and the Camels’ offensive front could raise that mark.
“Fundamentally, they’re a lot better than the teams we’ve faced so far, but it all comes down to playing in our gaps and doing our jobs,” defensive lineman Michael Vankat said.
The running game will likely be used early and often. Even though Hurricane Joaquin has moved out into the Atlantic, its outer bands bring a possibility of rain. The Bulldogs prepared accordingly.
“We actually had some buckets of water and were dipping balls in that water during some periods of practice,” Rice said.
Drake (2-2) hasn’t played Campbell since 2012, when the Bulldogs won 35-7 in Buies Creek. Since then, both teams have undergone coaching changes. Drake owns a 5-0 record against Campbell.
“I’m sure they’ll have some different things going on, it’s been a couple years,” Rice said.
This game has a little extra on the line as well. Drake President Marty Martin and Campbell President J. Bradley Creed placed a wager on the contest: If Drake wins, Martin will receive five pounds of eastern Carolina barbecue from Creed. If Campbell wins, Martin must fork over eight Iowa pork chops. Even though Fox and his team will do all the work on the field, the Bulldogs don’t expect to enjoy any victory barbecue.
“The NCAA would not let us get that,” Fox said, laughing. “Presidents can do that, but coaches and athletes can’t.”