A year ago, McPherson College’s football team entered its first-ever NAIA playoff game wide-eyed and uncertain what the experience would hold, considering the KCAC’s limited success in postseason play.
Not only did the Bulldogs prove they belonged on the national scene, but they went on the road and outplayed MidAmerica Nazarene for three quarters before the Pioneers exploded for 17 fourth-quarter points to rally for a 40-24 victory.
That experience served the Bulldogs well, as they blew through their 2010 schedule undefeated to win their first KCAC title in 58 years and again qualify for postseason play.
The added bonus this year is the Bulldogs finished No. 6 in the final national poll to secure a first-round home game Saturday. They will host McKendree University of Illinois, with kickoff set for 2 p.m. at McPherson Stadium. Gates open at noon.
Not much has changed for the Bulldogs, except at the top where first-year coach Joe Bettasso has followed up last year’s success with an even better season, as 19 starters returned off the 2009 team. Mac has won 19 of 21 games over the last two years, the only losses to MidAmerica in the playoffs and last year to Ottawa, which also will be home Saturday for a playoff game.
“I like the matchup,” said Bettasso, who last year at this time was Brian Ward’s defensive coordinator. “It’s a contrast of styles. Our team has big-game experience and they’re not going to walk out there wide-eyed. It’s an unbelievable feeling and our guys are excited, especially those seniors who went 4-6 and 4-6 those first two years. The transfers have lost only two games in their careers, but these seniors who have been around got kicked around a little bit their first two years.”
Bettasso said the Bulldogs’ games this year with Friends and Ottawa should prepare them well. Those were the two most physical teams in the KCAC and the Bulldogs thrashed both.
“They’re somewhat similar to Friends in their mentality,” Bettasso said. “They want to run the ball. They’ll get three backs in the backfield and run double tight (end). They’re big upfront, very physical upfront. It will be interesting to see how we match up with them.”
 The Bearcats, under veteran coach Carl Poelker, have been a solid defensive team this year, allowing just 17.6 points a game. That unit will be severely tested, as the high-flying Bulldogs come in averaging 50.7 points a game, 362 yards passing and 175 on the ground.
Record-setting quarterback Shane Mascarenas has thrown for 3,419 yards and 35 touchdowns. A year ago, he had an injured hand going into the playoff game, but gave a courageous performance. He’ll operate behind a big, veteran offensive line and his quick feet allows him to buy time if he is rushed.
Mac has the best 1-2 receiving punch in the country in Joe Middleton (67 catches, 1,140 yards, 15 TDs) and Andy Skinner (63, 1,183, 13). Rattanak Muor, who came up so big against Bethany, adds 25 catches for 405 yards and three scores.
For the Bulldogs to be successful, Bettasso said, they’ll have to be able to run the ball. Aaron Lafitte needs only 26 yards to go over the 1,000-yard mark, as he has 974 and 18 touchdowns, despite missing a game and playing sparingly in another. He has been at his best in the big games, as it was his running against Bethany that keyed a fourth-quarter comeback, the only time Mac had trailed in the fourth quarter this year.
“The goal is to stay balanced,” Bettasso said. “We’ll kind of take what they give us and go from there. But we’ve got to be able to run the ball. They’re very good on the defensive line.”
The Mac defense will be put to the test. It’s led by KCAC Defensive Player of the Year, end Scott Jones, while Will Powers anchors the middle at linebacker. Ginikachi Ibe and Shelton Thigpen headline the secondary, with Ibe coming up huge last week with two picks and a fumble return for a touchdown.
While the Bulldogs have individuals with spectacular credentials, the Bearcats are more blue collar.
Jimmy Berezik is the top rusher with 763 yards, while Marlone Chenault and Joe Beimfohr are at 550 and 513 respectively. Quarterback Austin Fisher has thrown for 1,262 yards and 16 TDs, while being picked off only three times. Myron Hicks is the top receiver with 27 catches for 413 yards.
“Their quarterback is very efficient and they like to set the pass up with the run,” Bettasso said.  “The reason they don’t have a lot of dazzling numbers is that they have five different guys that carry the ball. They want to run the ball, but they do have a big tight end and a couple of good wide receivers. But they just don’t throw the ball that much.”
The winner of the game advances to the NAIA quarterfinals, with the pairings to be announced Sunday afternoon.