September 24, 2015

(STATS) - Just over 10 months ago, San Diego took the field against visiting Valparaiso knowing it could secure the Pioneer League championship and its first trip to the FCS playoffs.

That seemed like a foregone conclusion. The Toreros were riding a 10-game winning streak in the series as well as a six-game run in PFL play and facing a sub-.500 team, but it took a last-second miracle for them to stun the Crusaders.

It only seems fitting that San Diego opens defense of its league championship at Valparaiso on Saturday.

The Toreros initially needed to beat the Crusaders on Nov. 15 and have Jacksonville lose to Campbell in order to win the league title. However, the Dolphins withdrew from contention a day earlier due to violations against the league's need-based financial aid guidelines, meaning San Diego only needed a victory to earn the PFL's automatic bid into the playoffs.

The Toreros held a 26-14 lead early in the fourth quarter, but the Crusaders didn't go quietly, scoring 13 unanswered points to go ahead by one with 28 seconds remaining.

That set the stage for Keith Williams' 44-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to Brandon White as time expired, giving San Diego a 32-27 victory.

"(Valparaiso) last year came into our stadium and for 59 minutes and 56 seconds they beat us and we were just lucky in the last four seconds with a Hail Mary. We were lucky to win the game," coach Dale Lindsey said.

The Toreros, whose seven-game league win streak is tied for fourth-longest in the FCS, have outscored Valparaiso 537-169 during their 11-game run in the series.

"That's a driving force this week moving forward," Crusaders coach Dave Cecchini said Monday. "A lot of our players feel like we had a real shot to win (last year) and hopefully moving forward here it's something that motivates us."

The teams enter this matchup coming off wins - sort of - with San Diego (1-1) beating Division II Western New Mexico 45-21 on Sept. 12 before a bye week.

Valparaiso crushed College of Faith, Arkansas, 86-0 in the second game in the history of that program last weekend, but it remained 0-2 because the NCAA declared College of Faith a non-countable opponent due to a lack of institutional accreditation.

The Crusaders were outscored 108-13 and outgained 936-493 in losing their first two to then-No. 17 Eastern Kentucky and Sacred Heart. The Toreros fell 37-3 to FBS program San Diego State in their opener despite allowing one offensive touchdown.

San Diego has won the PFL title outright or shared it on six occasions, tied with Drake for second-most in league history behind Dayton (11). Valparaiso has won it twice and not since 2003, but Lindsey wants the Toreros to remember how tough the Crusaders played them last year.

"We are really going to have to get ourselves ready," Lindsey said. "That program is being turned around. It is really progressing and it is progressing to the point that they are going to be very competitive with every team in the PFL. So by no means are we taking them lightly."

A look at the other Week 4 games Saturday in the Pioneer League (all times ET):

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Campbell (2-1) at Butler (2-1), Noon

The Fighting Camels won their first two games for the first time since relaunching the program in 2008 by scoring a PFL-best 76 points and allowing a league-low 23, but they turned the ball over three times in a 23-13 loss at Presbyterian last week. The Bulldogs bounced back from a 52-17 opening defeat at then-No. 21 Indiana State to beat Division III Franklin 41-14 and NAIA team Taylor 41-10 last Saturday. Quarterback Matt Shiltz totaled 371 yards and four TDs against Taylor. Campbell beat visiting Butler 28-9 last season to avoid a third straight loss in the series.

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Jacksonville (2-0) at Marist (1-2), Noon

The Dolphins conclude a stretch of playing their first three games away from home after posting wins over Delaware and Division II Newberry before being idle last week. Kade Bell was named PFL offensive player of the opening week and has passed for 565 yards and three scores to help Jacksonville win its first two games for the first time since 2001. The Red Foxes earned their first win last Saturday behind PFL co-offensive player of the week Marcellus Calhoun, who ran for a career-high 117 yards and sealed a 34-27 victory over Sacred Heart with a 69-yard TD with 3:33 to go. Marist has picked off Bell four times to win the last two matchups - both at home - and even the all-time series at 3-3.

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Davidson (0-2) at Morehead State (1-2), 1 p.m.

The Eagles picked up their first win last Saturday behind another outstanding performance by Austin Gahafer. After being named the STATS FCS National Offensive Player of the Week following a 447-yard, four-TD effort in a 43-40 defeat at VMI in Week 2, Gahafer threw three more touchdown passes in a 28-0 victory over NAIA program Kentucky Christian. The junior has played a part in all 10 of his team's touchdowns and leads the PFL with 794 passing yards and seven TDs through the air. He threw for 276 yards, ran for 75 and totaled two touchdowns last season in a 40-32 win over Davidson, part of a 13-game losing streak for the Wildcats. Davidson, coming off a bye, has also dropped 17 in a row in PFL action.

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Stetson (1-1) at Drake (1-2), 2 p.m.

The Bulldogs are back home after visiting the Dakotas in back-to-back weeks and losing 21-18 to North Dakota and 52-0 to South Dakota. The Hatters come in well rested after a bye week followed a 57-14 loss at Mercer. Stetson safety Donald Payne, the 2014 PFL defensive player of the year, has 23 tackles - three for loss - and an interception in the first two games. Drake rushed for 204 yards in winning 27-15 at Stetson in the first meeting between the schools last year.

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Dayton (2-0) vs. Kennesaw State (3-0), 6 p.m.

The Flyers are the only PFL team playing outside of the conference after beating Robert Morris and Duquesne for their first 2-0 start in seven years. Connor Kacsor was named PFL co-offensive player of the week after running for 244 yards and three TDs last Saturday, while cornerback Dayton Stubbs had two interceptions to earn league defensive player of the week honors. Kacsor averages 158.0 rushing yards to rank second in the FCS behind Stony Brook's Stacey Bedell (163.0). First-year program Kennesaw State has outscored its first three opponents 132-33 while outgaining them 1,306-693.

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