Mike Jones can finally breathe a sigh of relief.
His Lincoln Blue Tigers just completed a stretch of three consecutive games against ranked opponents that now own a collective 18-0 record. The Blue Tigers were outscored by 110 points during that string of losses.
Now Lincoln (1-5, 0-5 Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association) enters the softer portion of its schedule, beginning with today's 1 p.m. contest at Nebraska-Kearney (1-5, 1-4 MIAA).
"I wouldn't say the word would be "relieved,' but we had a tough stretch and it was rough on us," Jones, the third-year head coach, said. "We just have to bounce back and hopefully this week we'll start playing a lot better."
Lincoln's remaining five opponents hold a 4-26 combined record and just three MIAA wins.
"We're excited for the second half of the season," Jones said. "We feel that if we take it one game at a time we can do a pretty good job."
Nebraska-Kearney proved to be the only win for Lincoln last season, a 34-27 victory in a game that lasted more than six hours due to a lightning delay.
"It was a great game, both teams played extremely well," Jones said of last year's tilt. "It was the longest shortest game I've ever been a part of. The actual playing time was about 2 hours, 15 minutes, and the delay was twice that long. It was a great game. ... We were fortunate to come out with a win."
Despite that standing as the Blue Tigers' lone MIAA victory in the two-plus years since rejoining the conference for the 2011 season, Jones isn't ready to say those bragging rights from 2012 give his squad any boost of confidence heading into today's matchup.
"I don't want to say confidence, we have to be careful with that," Jones said. "We play well against a team and then we come back and don't play very well. We have to take care of our business and respect everybody we're playing against.
"We haven't played as well as we're supposed to. You never disrespect anybody and we were fortunate enough to win the game last year, so we have to make sure we prepare well and hopefully we'll get a win."
Nebraska-Kearney's victory came two weeks ago, a 56-6 pasting of Lindenwood at home. The Lopers are coming off a 31-0 loss to Central Arkansas on the road.
"They're two different teams," Jones said, alluding to the home/away discrepancies. "You look at them when they're playing on the road, they do certain things, and when they play at home they pull out all the trick plays, fake punts, halfback pass, all those different things. We have to be disciplined. They play with a lot more energy, they score more points at home, they don't allow as many. They're a better team at home."
The Loper to keep an eye on is quarterback Bronson Marsh. The sophomore signal-caller leads the team in rushing with 395 yards on 66 attempts, to go along with four touchdowns. Marsh struggles when he goes to the air, though, completing 70-of-123 passes for 664 yards with two touchdowns and eight interceptions.
"The type of offense that they run, they run a variation of an option slash jet sweep," Jones said. "We know our responsibilities. Against a speed-option team like that we have to make sure we have somebody on the quarterback on the pitch. When they run a jet sweep, we have to make sure we're set on the edge so we make the ball carrier cut back. They set it up with a fake jet sweep and then come back with a quarterback keeper. We have to make sure we're taking care of our responsibilites on defense.
"We've got to tackle. We understand if we don't get a hat on (Marsh) he can hurt us. We have to take care of the running game."
Jones also understands the Lincoln offense needs to ratchet things up.
"We have to score points," he said. "We can move the ball from 20 to 20, and when we're executing we score points. When we're not we just move the ball from 20 to 20. We have to figure out how to score points and make sure we take care of the football."