St. Ambrose opens this season with a lot of new. A new quarterback. New skill players. New defensive scheme.
All of that will be tested right from the start in Saturday's opener against Dakota State.
"Across the board, we're pretty inexperienced when it comes to varsity play because we were so senior-dominated a year ago but we still have some veteran guys in the program," head coach Mike Magistrelli said. "We've got a tremendous challenge right out of the gate."
The Fighting Bees welcome Dakota State to Brady Street Stadium, the Trojans already a game into their schedule. Dakota State roared to an opening-season 56-39 win over No. 17 Dakota Wesleyan last week and did so in record-breaking fashion.
The Trojans piled up a school record 642 offensive yards in the win, led by quarterback Jacob Giles, who threw for 452 yards and seven touchdowns. His top target, Austin Opdahl, had 17 catches for 333 yards and four touchdowns in the game.
St. Ambrose knows all too well how dangerous that duo can be. Last year Giles threw for 400 yards and seven scores — four to Opdahl — in a 62-48 Trojan win in South Dakota.
"They're not overly sophisticated or complicated. They run zone and they run it very well," Magistrelli said. "(Giles) has been through everything at this point. He throws a good ball, he moves around just well enough to extend plays and buy time and they have a number of different receivers."
With a new, simpler defensive scheme under first-year defensive coordinator Vince Fillipp, St. Ambrose is hoping it can keep the high-powered Trojan attack somewhat at bay.
"We have to tackle well ... they're going to make plays at times, they're very talented but we have to be able to tackle and get off the field when we have opportunities to," Magistrelli said. "You look at last year's game, when you started to struggle you started to try different things and when you start trying different things you are trying things you didn't practice as much ... when you're simpler, you're spending more time practicing that same defensive call no matter what they come out in."
The Bees won the first meeting in the series 39-35 in 2015 and the hope is to avoid getting into another shootout. But if it comes to putting points on the board, junior Jake Romani feels confident the offense is up to the task.
"The offense is looking great, I think we're executing pretty well, everyone is making plays," Romani said. "We've got to prove ourselves for sure but every year we're confident."
Magistrelli likes how Romani has looked in fall camp, and also likes the development of the offensive line and running game. The Bees have some experience around Romani, but their top players both in the backfield and on the outside are gone.
They'll be tested right away.
"We've talked about it as a group offensively that we have to be ready to score some points ourselves," Magistrelli said. "We have to be ready to convert on third downs so we can stay on the field, keeping them off the field but also extending drives so we can get in the red zone and punch it in. This is one of those weeks where I'd be surprised if field goals win it."
Dakota State is just the first of several challenging opponents this year for the Bees, who also have to face the last two national champions later in the year. With so many new faces getting their chance, a win could go a long way toward determining the way the season unfolds.
"You know it's going to be a heckuva opponent but if we can go out, play well and find a way to win, I think that can be a springboard for the rest of the season," Magistrelli said. "We can be off on the right foot and take care of that momentum moving forward."