Despite three straight losses, St. Ambrose can still accomplish plenty this season.
With the gauntlet of their cross-conference slate out of the way, the Fighting Bees return to the Mid-States Football Association Midwest race currently tied for first place in the league standings after a season-opening win over Missouri Baptist.
They take on Olivet Nazarene on Saturday, one of the three other teams tied with the Bees in the standings, but St. Ambrose feels it has a leg up coming off a bye week.
"Everybody's chasing us now, trying to get that title," senior defensive end Ryan Zitkus said. "I think we have a great opportunity ahead of us, especially this week. We've had that mindset through the bye week, what's really important is still ahead of us and that's a conference championship and a chance to make the playoffs."
A playoff berth is going to be difficult to attain as St. Ambrose — currently unranked — needs to move into the top 20 in the national rankings as well as win the conference. Even if that doesn't happen, a conference title would still make this season a success.
"There are things out of your control. ... We would be disappointed to not be in the playoffs, but I think a conference championship is certainly one of our highest goals," head coach Mike Magistrelli said. "It's been a strange season. We preach to our guys all the time about facing adversity, and I think we've faced three seasons worth of adversity so far this season so that would be a great success."
It has been a strange season. The Bees lost an opponent before the season, found a makeup opponent in Trinity Bible College, only to have that team cancel the game the week of the contest. St. Ambrose has only had one home game so far this season and has faced a very tough slate so far, with their three losses coming to ranked teams.
The players feel that adversity has made them a better team moving back into conference play.
"I think it's definitely put everything in perspective for us," Zitkus said. "Nothing's going to be given to us, we have to work really hard and we played some great teams. ... They pointed out some of the flaws we had that we've worked on correcting moving forward."
Offensive improvement: Averaging 20.5 points per game, the Bees know offensive inconsistencies are holding them back, and it's something they spent the bye week working on improving.
"It is (a sore spot) for the offense," senior offensive lineman Zach Gadbury said. "We're working our tails off, trying to figure some things out to try and get rolling. We're working harder than we ever have since I've been here. We know we can be good and we know in order for us to be good is we have to score points."
The offensive issues aren't hard to spot. The running game is only averaging 2.7 yards per carry, and the offense as a whole is only averaging 3.6 yards per play. The Bees also struggle on third downs, converting 34 percent, and part of that is due to getting off schedule earlier in the series.
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"We won't know until Saturday but we took a step back to work on the little things, pay attention to details," Gadbury said. "It's up to us to execute and put the best we've got on the field and see what happens but I think this bye week has been good for us, not just physically but mentally."
With another bye in two weeks, the Bees feel they can possibly find another gear, knowing they'll have another week off in short time.
"It's definitely something we notice," Gadbury said. It's kind of a positive; we only play nine games this year and we look at a lot of the negative things but that's one of the things we're looking at and staying positive with. We're 1-3, a lot of teams would just grab a towel and chuck it in and call it a season but like Coach Magistrelli has been preaching, everything we want is still ahead of us."
Always aware: With John Benckendorf now the starting quarterback after splitting time with Dino Borrelli for the first four games, the St. Ambrose offensive line has had to adjust how it plays. Benckendorf has made plays this year with his mobility, and it puts the onus on the offensive line to be aware of what he's doing to avoid potential missed assignments or holding calls.
"I think the biggest thing that (offensive line coach Brody Pogue) has hit with is just keep working with him," Gadbury said. "Receivers are working with him when he gets out of the pocket and scrambles. ... It's just important for us to keep working with him, work to the whistle.
"With John back there, we don't know what could happen. He could squirt around like Russell Wilson does and stuff and we've just got to keep working with him, hold our blocks and hopefully he can make plays."
Also, with freshman Declan McDonald slated to be the backup quarterback, there's also pressure to make sure Benckendorf stays upright the rest of the season.
"We've just got to do what we can to help him out," Gadbury said. "John brings a different aspect with his legs and it might start a spark for us."
Under the lights: This week's game is the first of three night contests for the Bees. It's not totally out of the ordinary — St. Ambrose had two night games last year — but it does change up things a bit in preparation.
For the players, it adds an extra layer of excitement, getting to play under the lights once again.
"It kind of reminds me of Friday Night Lights and that was always something really fun," Zitkus said. "It's out of routine, but we're definitely up for the challenge and I'm really looking forward to it."