Take a poll of the NJCAA football coaches and you’d likely get a resounding 100 percent yes if asked if they’d like their team ranked No. 1 in the country.
And then ask them when they’d like that ranking. Again, it’s unanimous they all want to be No. 1 the second week of December.
It took all of four weeks for coach Brian Mayper’s Navarro Bulldogs to ascend to the top spot in the NJCAA rankings and now defense of that No. 1 position begins in earnest against one of the most talented teams in the country.
Navarro hosts a 2-2 Trinity Valley team on Saturday at 7 p.m. that has played No. 2 Iowa Western within seven points, blasted Jayhawk Conference power Coffeyville 70-7 and last week dominated Cisco, 49-21.
“It’s a nice honor to be No. 1,” Mayper said earlier this week after his team defeated fellow SWJCFC preseason favorite Kilgore. “But now we’ve got to win. We’ve got to beat Trinity Valley this weekend and then keep winning each week until we achieve our ultimate goal, which is to be No. 1 in December.”
Navarro (4-0 overall, 2-0 in the SWJCFC) is in the middle of an arduous three-game stretch on its schedule. Having dispatched Kilgore 35-21 last week, the Bulldogs take on Trinity Valley at Tiger Stadium and then venture to Tyler for a date with an Apache team that is 4-0 and has risen to No. 7 in the NJCAA.
Trinity Valley presents its own set of difficulties, namely the league’s most potent quarterback leading an offense averaging a conference-best 528.3 yards per game.
Ryan Polite, a sophomore who ironically transferred from UTSA after finding himself behind former Trinity Valley quarterback Tucker Carter on the Roadrunner depth chart, has lit it up in his first four games. The former Desoto star has completed 70.3 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns, averaging 331 yards through the air. The freshmen duo of Jarvis Baxter and Jataveon Green have 22 and 21 catches, respectively.
“Iowa Western got them down early and then Trinity Valley started scoring in a hurry,” Mayper said. “They’ve got that kind of team. They’ve got athletes all over the field and they have the ability to score at any point of the game. (Polite) does a lot of reading (defenses) at the line of scrimmage and they throw a lot more to the receivers in the slots. Trinity Valley gets the ball down the field in a hurry.”
The two teams share another trait — the ability to shut down opponents’ running games. Navarro is allowing only 52.5 yards per game on the ground, just two yards better than the Cardinals. Trinity Valley is giving up only 1.4 yards per attempt, compared to 1.6 for Navarro.
Navarro was especially hard on Kilgore’s offense in the second half last week, sacking quarterback Tanner Tausch four times and limiting the Rangers to minus-1 yard rushing in the final 30 minutes.
“We’re deep on the defensive line right now and it showed in the second half (against Kilgore) because we were able to rotate guys in all night,” Mayper said. “The defensive line must get pressure on (Polite) on Saturday.”
The main difference between the two clubs is turnovers. Navarro is plus-6 in turnovers/takeaways and the Cardinals are minus-5. Navarro’s new 3-4 defense has forced 13 fumbles already this season. Meanwhile, Trinity Valley has put the ball on the turf 14 times, losing eight.
“It’s been proven whomever wins the penalty and turnover part of the game wins 90 percent of the time,” Mayper said. “We’ve got to get started fast on Saturday, play great defense, score quickly and get turnovers. Then we’ve got to keep that going throughout the game. If we do those three things, we’re going to win the game against a very talented (Trinity Valley) team.
“Last week, we started about as fast as a team could (Austin Collins returned the opening kickoff 84 yards for a TD), but then we didn’t keep it up and they were tied with us at halftime. We cannot do that again this week.”
Navarro will be without starting quarterback Josh Greer (injured shoulder) for an undetermined amount of time, though they have veteran Alex Allen ready to step in as the starter on Saturday. Allen has completed 6 of 13 passes for 129 yards and has rushed for 51 yards and two scores in backup duty this season. Carson Earp, a smart, strong-armed freshman from Waco, will be Allen’s backup.
Although Navarro won’t stray too far from its quick-strike passing attack, it may lean heavily on the running attack that features a pair of 100-yard-a-game rushers in Tim Wright and Cameron Washington.
Whatever the offensive combination or personnel, the Bulldogs will stick with their coach’s mantra.
“Start fast. Great defense. Get turnovers. That’s how we’ll win,” Mayper said.
Trinity Valley at Navarro
Saturday, 7 p.m.
At Tiger Stadium
RECORDS: No. 1-ranked Navarro (4-0 overall, 2-0 in SWJCFC) and Trinity Valley (2-2, 1-0)
RECENT HISTORY: Last year’s game was played in monsoon-like weather, producing ample turnovers and a huge game from RB Traylon Shead, who scored twice in a 21-point Navarro fourth quarter as the Bulldogs slid to a 21-10 victory. Shead had 185 yards on 21 carries, including an 80-yard TD run in that final period.
KEY PLAYERS: Navarro: OL Carter Wall, QB Josh Greer, RB Tim Wright, RB Cameron Washington, LB Dominique Kelly, WR Markel Steward-Gillespie, OL Tim Hines, DE Desmond Owino, DL Kerry Holiday, DL John Williams, CB Sherman Gilbert, S Aaron Shaw, S Alex Miller, CB KeUntis Thompson, LB Chrishard Buhl, WR Devin Lauderdale, WR Austin Collins, QB Alex Allen. TVCC: QB Ryan Polite, RB Tavarreon Dickerson, RB Marquel McNac, WR Jataveon Green, WR Jarvis Baxter, WR Franky Okafor, K Dylan McLain, LB Courtney Finney, LB Josh Pickett, DT Jhaustin Thomas, DE Duval Jackson, DB D’Nerrius Antoine.
GAME NOTES: Polite is one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the nation, averaging 331 yards through the air, completing 70.1 percent of his passes and registering 9 scores. He’s got five receivers with double-digit catches, led be the duo of Green and Baxter, who have 43 grabs between them . . . between the 20s, the Cardinals go with RBs Dickerson (8.8 yards per carry) and McNac (5.1), but when they get near the goal line, it’s Luis Lopez time. The compact, 5-foot-7, 220-pound freshman leads the team with 4 TDs . . . DT Thomas is a big, disruptive force in the middle of Trinity Valley’s defense ... Thomas has 5 tackles for loss and is tied for second in the conference with 5 sacks for minus-25 yards. Trinity Valley’s 30 sacks leads the league ... DE Jackson also has 5 sacks . . . Trinity Valley has a prolific offense (528.9 yards per game) but it has struggled with turnovers ... the Cardinals have fumbled a conference-high 14 times and turns the ball over three times a game ... they are minus-5 in turnover-takeaway ratio .. by contrast, Navarro is plus-6, forcing 11 turnovers this season while giving it up a conference-low 5 times . . .with QB Greer out at least a couple of weeks with a shoulder injury suffered on the next-to-last series against Kilgore, Navarro will turn to Allen ... the former Dangerfield star signal-caller, has attempted only 13 passes this season and has rushed for 51 yards and 2 TDs ... Allen’s backup will be true freshman Carson Earp, who has drawn praise from the coaching staff throughout the preseason . . . if the rains come (60 percent chance at game-time), look for Navarro to take the pressure off the quarterbacks by leaning on its running attack, paced by RBs Wright and Washington, both of whom are averaging more than 100 yards per game . . . if Navarro’s running game is successful, forcing Trinity Valley’s safeties to creep closer to the line of scrimmage, watch for the Bulldogs to use the fleet feet of Lauderdale to stretch the field ... the freshman is averaging 27.7 yards on 13 catches, five of which have gone for TDs ... Lauderdale had a 79-yarder last week against Kilgore.
Wright and Washington to go against a spread out defense . . . Greer is completing 66.2 percent of his passes this year and Lauderdale is averaging 29.9 yards on 9 catches, four of which resulted in scores.
— Rob Ludwig