The Lincoln Blue Tigers are nearing the end of the gauntlet.
Lincoln (1-4) faces its third ranked opponent in as many weeks as the Blue Tigers travel across the border to the west to take on No. 15 Washburn (5-0) at 1 p.m. today.
"It's been tough," Lincoln head coach Mike Jones said of the stretch. "But the thing about it is we're playing against good football teams and we get a chance to see where we are, what we have to do against really good teams and how this team measures up."
Starting with No. 10 Pittsburg State two weeks ago, continuing with No. 23 Emporia State last Saturday and now concluding with Washburn, this three-week stretch for Lincoln features opponents that are a combined 15-0.
Compare that with Lincoln's final five opponents, which are a combined 3-22.
"We saw it against Pittsburg State, we know we can play with nationally ranked teams on the offensive side of the ball," Jones said, alluding to Lincoln's 59-38 loss to the Gorillas. "We have to do some things on the defensive side of the ball to get better. If we execute and do what we're supposed to, we can play with them and hopefully win games."
Unlike the majority of Lincoln's opponents so far this season, Washburn offers a tangent from the norm while promoting defense as its calling card.
The Ichabods rank first in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association in scoring defense (14.6 points per game), rushing defense (94.8 yards) and interceptions (12).
"They fly around to the football," Jones said. "They're an excellent tackling team. They're very sound in what they do. They're stout. We have to do what we're supposed to on offense and we should be OK."
That poses an exciting challenge for Lincoln, as the Blue Tigers' offense gets to test its mettle against an imposing defense.
"I believe we can move the ball and score on offense," Jones said.
That's not to say Washburn is devoid of an offensive attack. The Ichabods still rank third in the MIAA with 46.4 points per game, led by a solid if not spectacular quarterback and a cast of skill players.
"It doesn't jump out at you like some of these other teams, but when you watch them on film they do a great job," Jones said. "They're big up front, they knock people off the football and they just grind you out."
Starting signal-caller Mitch Buhler completes 54 percent of his passes (77-of-142) and has thrown for 1,329 yards and 13 touchdowns to go along with five interceptions.
Jordan Hart and Tore' Hurst are the main receiving threats, amassing 325 and 304 yards, respectively. The pair has combined for five touchdown receptions.
Washburn features five players with 100-plus rushing yards, led by Sean McPherson's 169. Vershon Moore has racked up 163 yards in just two games with three touchdowns.
"They run the ball extremely well," Jones said. "I don't think the numbers dictate how well they run the ball. ... It may not be a 60- or 70-yard run, you'll see consecutive 4-, 5-(yard runs) and then you'll see a 15-, 20-(yard run), and then you'll see a 4-, 5-(yard run). Those can wear on you after a while."
Lincoln is coming off a 59-14 loss to Emporia State in the Blue Tigers' Homecoming game. Jones is expecting an improved effort today.
"I think we'll bounce back," he said. "We've shown every time that we haven't played well the next game we have. We have to figure out how to play well consistently."
Playing better is a far cry from attaining Lincoln's first road win in the MIAA since rejoining the conference prior to the 2011 season. So do the Blue Tigers stand a chance?
"I believe so," Jones said. "We go into every game believing we can win. We understand that there's some good teams and we're playing ranked football teams, but we go out there Saturdays expecting to play well and if we do everything we're supposed to we have a great chance of winning."
Notes: Lincoln starting quarterback Jacob Morris left last Saturday's game with a sprained knee in the third quarter. He is expected back for today's game. "There was nothing structurally wrong with his knee," Jones said. "He's going to have some soreness, but we're hoping he's going to be able to play." ... Lincoln's top receiver Khiry Draine missed a few days of practice after suffering a concussion during the Emporia State loss, but said he's going to play today.