Title matchup

St. Mary’s has Bishop Ryan’s number.

Since Ryan coach Brad Borkhuis took over in 2010, the Saints have scored wins in all three contests.

What’s more?

Those three victories were decided by a combined 14 points.

“My freshman and sophomore year, I think they were just a better team,” Ryan senior Mason Kramer said. “They had some really good athletes. Last year, we felt like we should’ve beat them. We had some turnovers and some mistakes and didn’t execute. So this year, we’re kind of looking for redemption.”

The stakes for today’s 7:30 p.m. contest at Herb Parker Stadium can hardly be overstated.

Ryan’s owned the top ranking in the Class AA media poll all season, while St. Mary’s has held steady all year at No. 2. Both teams boast 8-0 records and are 6-0 in West Region play.

And the winner takes home the region title, but more importantly the region’s top seed in the state playoffs – which includes home-field advantage until the Dakota Bowl.

For the Lions, revenge would be extra sweet. But their coach isn’t buying into the hype.

“We’re not approaching it with a lot of the fervor that a lot of the outside is,” said Borkhuis, who is 24-13 in four years at Ryan. “(St. Mary’s) is a great team. To that degree, there’s some implications. But our focus is on the fact that we need to get better and we hopefully have a month worth of games left, so that’s why we need to make sure we’re taking another step.”

Borkhuis’ motivation stems from the Lions’ lack of late-season success during his tenure.

He’s largely turned around a once-struggling program by making the playoffs the past two years. But Ryan lost four of its last six games in 2010 and 2011, before dropping its final two contests last year – a 13-9 defeat against St. Mary’s followed by a home playoff loss to East Region No. 4 seed Valley City.

This season, the Lions have been dominant, outscoring opponents 340-88. On average, their top-ranked offense piles up 371.5 yards while their second-ranked defense allows 182.5 yards.

But as good as Ryan has been, St. Mary’s has been equally impressive, especially on defense.

The Saints limited East Region champion Shanley to nine points in their season opener, and in four games against playoff qualifiers (Shanley, Lisbon, Beulah and Watford City), they’ve allowed just 21 total points.

“As far as facing that defense, they’re very good,” Borkhuis said. “We have to manage their pressure. That’s the big thing. That’s going to be the crux of what we see from a defensive standpoint for them.”

St. Mary’s coach Dan Smrekar primarily utilizes a tenacious 3-4 front, led by linemen Jackson Grad, Thomas Berry and Mason Knutson and senior linebacker Brock Meyer.

Last season, Ryan turned the ball over five times in frigid temperatures.

Eggl, who threw four interceptions in that game, said ball security has been a focal point of the Lions’ preparation.

“They’ve got a good defense,” said Eggl, who’s thrown 21 touchdowns to four interceptions this year. “They appear to be pretty aggressive, so we just gotta make sure that we take care of the ball and execute our stuff and manage their intensity and match it.”

Offensively, the Saints employ a run-oriented attack, mixing in a variety of formations – from pro slot-I under center to a two-receiver, one-back look out of the shotgun.

If one unit could be considered a weakness for St. Mary’s, it’s the offense.

In those four games against playoff teams, the Saints have averaged 21 points per game. Meanwhile, Ryan has put up 36 points per contest in three wins (Kindred, Watford City and Beulah) over playoff qualifiers.

“We’re going to have to score, there’s no question,” said Smrekar, in his 36th year as St. Mary’s head coach. “Our offense is going to have to produce and our offense is going to have to help our defense.

“(Ryan) can score from anywhere on the field real quick. We gotta keep our offense on the field and we’ve gotta be able to move the ball. We’ve gotta be able to grind some things out. Two touchdowns aren’t going to beat them.”

Borkhuis said the Lions don’t plan to test the arm of St. Mary’s junior quarterback Gus Smrekar, the coach’s son. But if Ryan’s high-tempo spread offense – which has built halftime leads of 28-plus points in five of the past six games – generates points early, Eggl said the Saints will resort to their less-heralded passing game.

“They’re not exactly a quick-strike offense, whereas we feel we are,” Eggl said, “so if we can come out and get a few (touchdowns) early, we can definitely put them in a position they’re not comfortable with and that should be a big advantage to our defense.”

Nevertheless, Borkhuis remains firm that the hoopla surrounding tonight’s 1-2 matchup is nonsense.

He’s still seeking his first playoff win, and he says this game is simply preparation for the postseason.

Asked how important winning a second straight West Region title is, Borkhuis said: “Not nearly as important as winning the state title.”

Ryan Holmgren covers high school sports and general assignments. Follow him on Twitter @ryanholmgren.