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The MIAC 3: Top games on the gridiron to watch for this weekend

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The Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference has a rich tradition of football excellence spanning the entire state.

From the great Gustavus days of the mid-1900s, to the legacy of John Gagliardi and St. Johns, to the emergence of Glenn Caruso and St. Thomas, the only college conference contained within Minnesota's borders has been playing football nearly 100 years, and it's about time the storied tradition is recognized.

Every week, we'll preview the top three games within the conference to get you prepped for the weekend action. Last week, the Johnnies pulled the upset of the young season, taking down then-No. 2 St. Thomas in dramatic fashion (below). Concordia won the "Troll Bowl" over St. Olaf, with the trophy even making ESPN's College Gameday, and the Auggies, Carleton, and Bethel also filling up the win column.

Plenty of national coverage last week, on to the games to watch this Saturday.

1. Concordia @ St. Johns, 1 p.m., Clemens Stadium, Collegeville: A nearly unfathomable win for St. Johns in St. Paul last week. A back and forth battle that came down to the Johnnies executing on special teams, and the Tommies not being able to do the same. Concordia didn't have it easy against St. Olaf, a team that had a horrendous loss to Luther two weeks ago, but the Cobbers pulled it out in the end. These are two of the four teams in the conference left that are undefeated and also have a conference win, and it's going to be a battle. The Cobbers come in ranked #29 in the nation, with the Johnnies entering the AFCA Coaches' Poll at 21. Gary Faasching has done an unbelievable job making the seamless transition from John Gagliardi to new regime. He has the Johnnies back to playing hard nosed football, specifically on the defensive side of the ball where they're giving up just 16 points per game. That side of the ball is led by MIAC Defensive Player of the Week Nolan Lortz, the linebacker that had the interception to set up the game-winning Johnnie field goal last week. Offensively there's still work to be done, but what a target Josh Bungum is, racking up 12 more catches last week and leading the MIAC in receiving. For the Cobbers, it's about two men: Quarterback Griffin Neal and wideout Brandon Zylstra. Neal is a dual threat guy that is fifth in the league in passing and seventh in rushing, and Zylstra is his main target, ranking third in the MIAC in receiving. Defensively, they have to be better, giving up a league worst 247 yds/gm through the air. Johnnie QB Connor Bruns has left something to be desired so far this year, putting up just 140 yds/gm, but if he can find the range this week, the Cobbers may be in trouble. Ditto with Griffin Neal passing against the Johnnies.

2. Bethel @ Carleton, 1 p.m., Laird Stadium, Northfield: In a battle of the bottom two teams in the MIAC from last year, Carleton held on in overtime, and notched a 20-17 win over Hamline, equaling their conference win total from 2012 on opening weekend. On the other side, this is Bethel's MIAC opener, throttling Buena Vista 47-14 last week. The Royals suddenly find themselves as the top ranked team in the MIAC, sitting at No. 8 in the AFCA poll. To avoid the same fate that St. Thomas did last week, the Royals must keep doing what they do, airing it out. QB Erik Peterson leads the MIAC in passing yards per game with nearly 300, and Mitch Hallstrom and Jared Schultz have been his targets, both in the top 10 in receiving yards per game. The tough part for defenses when they face Bethel, is that they have the running game to compliment their strong passing attack, RB Brandon Marquardt is rushing for 110 a game. Their defense, led by All-American Linebacker Seth Mathis, forced 29 turnovers last year, second best in the league. On the other side Carleton has to be happy where they're sitting, as the one undefeated team you would say "doesn't belong" with the four other undefeateds in the MIAC sitting in the top 40 nationally. They'll need a big game from running back John Baker, who is fifth in the MIAC in rushing, and a complimentary performance from the duo of quarterback Connor Lynch and wide receiver Anthony Kemper. There's no easy game in the MIAC, and no one should write off Carleton, but this is about as tough as it gets for a program trying to dig themselves out a hole five years deep.

3. Hamline @ Augsburg, 1 p.m., Edor Nelson Field, Minneapolis:Last week the Auggies had a scare, needing a late 46-yard screen pass from QB Ayrton Scott to RB Phil Putratz to save them from an upset at the hands of the Gusties. We already discussed Hamline, who's utter lack of a passing game is downright scary, throwing for just 98 yards last week. Even scarier for the Pipers, and more so opponents, is MIAC Offensive Player of the Week Austin Duncan, who ripped apart the Knights run defense to the tune of 298 yards on the ground. This is even more incredible considering the lack of passing game to support him, and Hamline, despite the loss last week, is leading the MIAC in yards per game, nearly eclipsing the 500 mark. Augsburg on the other hand, has given up 200 yards per game on the ground, so you know where Hamline's bread will be buttered this week on offense. For the Auggies, Scott was contained extremely well on the ground last week by Gustavus, gaining just 56 yards, the lowest by far in the career of the sophomore quarterback and just the second time he's been held under 100 yards in a game. Getting Scott going on the ground and through the air will be key for Augsburg, while at least slowing down the ultra-productive Duncan will be a significant step in the right direction.

St. Olaf visits Gustavus in the other MIAC matchup of the week, with St. Thomas as the team that can sit back and nurse their wounds following the unexpected defeat at the hands of the Johnnies. Attendance is expected to be high, with all of these games aside from Bethel-Carleton representing a homecoming contest, so get there early for your tickets.

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