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All eyes on the PFL Championship at Drake
It’s no secret that the Bulldogs are one of the elite teams in the Pioneer Football League. After finishing the 2010 season at 7-4 overall and with a 6-2 conference record, Drake is primed to contend for the PFL Championship in 2011.
However, reaching that conference championship has been an elusive goal in recent years for the Bulldogs.
Last season, the Bulldogs lost both conference games in heartbreaking fashion. The first was a 39-34 loss on the road to reigning PFL Champion Jacksonville, and the second came at the hands of a last-second Hail Mary pass in a 31-25 defeat at Dayton.
The Bulldogs were a few breaks away from having a better conference season and had to settle for third place in the PFL.
This season, however, not only do the Bulldogs return several important contributors, but they also have a favorable schedule.
Last season, the Bulldogs faced their two toughest opponents on the road, and Dayton and Jacksonville did not get to play each other (both went undefeated in the PFL). Drake opens the 2011 season with a schedule advantage.
This year, Drake’s toughest road battles will be at Butler and at San Diego State, but both programs seem to have taken a step back. There is a good chance Drake will enter the last two weeks of the season with an undefeated conference record, and then they’ll have to face both Jacksonville and Dayton at home.
On top of that Jacksonville and Dayton do play each other this season. The Bulldogs might not need to beat both foes to claim the PFL Championship.
Of course, that will only be the scenario if the Bulldogs can take care of business first against the rest of the conference. They have several important players coming back that might help them achieve that.
Most notably, the Bulldogs will have 10 of their 11 starters returning on offense, including senior quarterback Mike Piatkowski. Piatkowski, one of the better quarterbacks in the league, missed two games last season due to injury.
Senior Drew Blackmon and junior Joey Orlando return as the top threats at the wide receiver position. In addition, fifth-year senior running back Patrick Cashmore also returns. Cashmore had 357 rushing yards last season to lead the Bulldogs.
On defense, Drake returns seven starters. Senior linebacker Tyler Moorehead, a consensus preseason All-PFL performer, will anchor the defensive unit after leading the team in tackles last season with 62.
Fifth-year senior defensive back Michael Lahart and senior defensive back Akeem Campbell will also return, giving Drake an experienced secondary.
The biggest concern will be rebuilding a defensive line unit that lost three of its starters.
Drake will sorely miss reigning PFL Defensive Player of the Year Dain Taylor. Taylor had a monster year last season at defensive end, recording 49.5 tackles, 13.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries, an interception and a blocked field goal.
The Bulldogs will also have to replace Andrew Asbell and Josh Walkup along the defensive line. But there is optimism that experienced players such as senior David Witkiewicz and senior Anthony Gianaras can fit the bill.
The Bulldogs are looking for their first PFL Championship since 2004 and with 17 returning starters and a favorable schedule, the idea does not seem so farfetched.
Predicted Record: 9-2 (7-1)
Thursday, Sept. 1 @ North Dakota 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 10 vs Grand View, Drake Stadium, 6 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 17 vs Missouri S&T, Drake Stadium, 6 p.m.
By EDUARDO TAMEZ ZAMARRIPA, The Times-Delphic