Roughriders could clinch playoff spot

06/14/02 Bismarck Tribune
The Bismarck Roughriders can't be first, but they can be next.

The Lake Charles LandSharks made it official last week when they became the first team to clinch and NIFL playoff berth, but a road win tonight over the Lincoln Capitols would be enough to make the Riders the second.

That will be no easy task: The Capitols (7-4) are not only fighting for their playoff lives, they also are a perfect 4-0 at Pershing Auditorium this year.

If the season ended now, Bismarck would host Lincoln in a first-round playoff game.

The two teams are not strangers to one another. Lincoln came to the Civic Center on April 27 and were thumped 54-36 by Bismarck in the Roughrider debut by Danny Ragsdale.

That was the pivotal game of Bismarck's season: The Roughriders are 6-0 with Ragsdale -- with a seven-game winning streak overall -- and transformed from one of the NIFL's worst offenses to its best. Bismarck now consistently racks up 300 yards-plus per game in total offense and is up around 60 points every week.

Lincoln had done pretty well for itself since that night to. The Capitols promptly won four out of five, moving into first place in the Pacific North. That all came to a screeching halt last weekend, when the Capitols blew an 11-point lead in the final minutes and were upset 44-41 by Tri-City.

Injuries have begun to chip away at Lincoln. Wideout Zach Sangster suffered a season-ending knee injury a few weeks back, but Lincoln has plenty of options on offense. More critical could be the loss of defensive back Heath Staples, who suffered a cracked vertebrae in last week's loss and is done for the season.

Staples was the leader of the Lincoln secondary and the Capitols could use all the help against Bismarck's passing game. Ragsdale has averaged 240 yards per game through the air since his return, by far the highest number in the NIFL.

Lincoln is led offensively by quarterback Josh Luedtke (1,685 yards, 33 touchdowns, 6 interceptions). The Capitols have two of the league's top scorers in running backs Rayshawn Askew and Damon Benning. Askew handles most of the running chores (157 carries, 593 yards) while Benning is often used as a wide receiver. No other back in the NIFL can match Benning's receiving numbers (55 catches, 466 yards), although Bismarck's Quentin Cradle is closing in fast (43 catches, 473 yards).

* CHASE IS ON: The Riders will have the top seed in the Pacific Conference if they win out, and maybe even if they lose once.

A playoff berth is all but assured.

Mathematically eight of the 10 teams in the Pacific Conference are still alive, although the Lincoln-Bismarck, Billings-Rapid City and Sioux City-Sioux Falls games this weekend should help sort things out -- or make the knot tighter.

The Atlantic Conference race is a little clearer. The Landsharks (10-1) have already clinched the South while Ohio Valley (9-0) has the upper hand in the North. Tennessee (7-3) still has two games left with the Greyhounds, so the Thundercats could still make the North race interesting, particularly with a possible forfeit loss hanging over Ohio Valley's head. If Tennessee can't catch the Greyhounds, they still are the frontrunners in the race for the wild card.

Louisiana (5-5) leads the mediocre East by a game over Tupelo (4-6), a division so weak that even Mississippi (2-8) still has a glimmer of hope, albeit a dim one.

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