ROCK ISLAND — On first glance, the Augustana College football team has little to play for on Saturday.
The Vikings head into their season-finale at Wheaton with a 1-8 record and can play spoiler for the 6-2 Thunder, who are 4-2 in CCIW and ranked No. 24 nationally.
However, third-year Augie coach Steve Bell sees so much more importance to this game than just a win or a loss to close out what has been a frustrating season. While the players are in the middle of final exams this week, they will get tested in more ways than one this week on the football field.
“This week is absolutely important,” said Bell. “Win, lose or draw, it’s important for the overall health of the program.”
Augustana athletic director Mike Zapolski said Bell is in good stead with the program. But he notes that Year 4 with a program full of his own recruits is an important one to show strides.
That's why Bell thinks this week is critical.
“For the health of the program, this week is absolutely important in the way we practice and how we go about our business,” said Bell. “We’re continuing to try to build certain things, and this week cannot be a step backward. I’m not even talking about Saturday. I’m talking about the things we can control during the week.”
Weekday workouts have not been the problem for this team. Bell has been satisfied with the prep work that has been done for each game. The issue is carrying that to the field and making plays when they count.
That was evident in last week’s 20-17, gut-wrenching loss to North Park in the home finale. Augie could point to a number of plays that weren’t made that could have changed the game. Even senior captain Riley Donald had seen enough, saying, “At some point, our best players have to step up and make plays. … Guys really need to make plays to win games.”
“When you’re in a position to make plays and you continue to not make them, leaders of the team need to call you out on it,” said Bell. “As coaches, we need to make sure the kids understand it’s critical he make a play at that point or we pull them and put somebody else in who can make them.”
The problem is that a lack of depth among upperclassmen leaves Bell looking to freshmen to step up and take advantage of playing time. That is happening this week with freshman Noah Patterson (Mattoon) sliding into a starting safety spot.
At least 25 freshmen and sophomores are listed on Augie’s two-deep roster, which had yet to be updated this week. Those are the kids who are in position to continue the program’s rebuild. And, according to Bell, that includes doing the right things even when there is seemingly little to gain.
That’s why in this week of tests on the Augie campus, the big exam for the football Vikings comes over a matter of days and not just on Saturday. And the results won’t be displayed on the scoreboard, either — and not just on one day.
“It’s so paramount right now,” said Bell of a good week, “because we’re going to go into an offseason load after this week.”
That's when there surely will be more quizzes, exams and challenging homework to face in preparation for the 2018 season.