Wartburg’s “Beat Luther” shirts sent a message this year.
The shirts sold on campus annually at the onset of “Beat Luther Week” read, “Beat Luther Again.”
The back of the shirt marks every year the Knights have beaten the Norse since 1997. That includes every season but 2005. Wartburg has won 21 of the last 22 meetings in the 71-year history of the series.
For first-year Norse head coach Aaron Hafner, the shirt was literally bulletin board material.
“Our kids are plenty aware of it,” Hafner said after hanging prints of the shirt in the team locker room Tuesday. “You can sit here and get upset and do all this stuff but the truth is the truth, they’ve beat us a lot in the last few years. There’s no reason to start talking about this or that, you have to go out and prove yourself on Saturday afternoon.”
Luther heads into Saturday’s 1 p.m. kickoff at Carlson Stadium in Decorah that will be televised by KCRG 9.2 already having surpassed last year’s win total.
The Norse are 2-3 in Hafner’s first season at Luther, two wins better than last season’s winless mark that ended with head coach Mike Durnin’s resignation.
Hafner installed the triple option, an offense he ran with great success as offensive coordinator at NAIA William Penn in Oskaloosa, and has been pleased with the transition.
“(The players have adapted) a lot better than I thought they would,” Hafner said. “They have to really buy into it if it’s going to be successful. So far I think we’re getting better at everything we’re doing.”
Senior JJ Sirios converted from defensive back to quarterback in the preseason to run the triple option, having done so in high school.
Sirios has directed Luther to an IIAC leading 294.4 rushing yards per game. He’s second on the team with 286 yards and a touchdown on 56 carries while fullback Josh Vos leads the squad with 516 yards and nine touchdowns on 94 carries.
Saturday they’ll face the conference’s toughest rushing defense. Wartburg only allows 92.8 yards on the ground per game and 2.7 yards per carry.
“(They’re) very fast and physical,” Hafner said of the Knights’ defense. “They will be, in my opinion, the team that we’ve played so far up to this point, they play the hardest. On every snap they really try to get after you.”
The Norse will have concerns on defense as well after giving up 56 points to Dubuque, which scored on eight of its 10 possessions last week.
Wartburg leads the conference in scoring at 34.6 points per game and is second in total offense with 420.6 yards a game. Luther is second in total defense but sixth in scoring defense.
Hafner said their main goal will be slowing down Wartburg QB Taylor Jacobsmeier, who has thrown for 402 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions and run for another 214 yards and a score in the Knights’ first two IIAC games.
“You don’t know if he’s gonna run the ball or throw it,” Hafner said. “You have to stop him throwing the ball first and you have to defend the pass after the fact but stopping the run will be key for us and being able to run the ball obviously will be a key for us to have success.”
The Knights won last season’s meeting 24-10, which might seem close for a team that didn’t win a game, but half of Luther’s losses came by 14 points or less.
After a one-point loss at Presentation to open 2013, the Norse finally won one of those close games — a 20-13 victory over St. Olaf. They defeated Loras 41-7 to begin the IIAC campaign and are 2-0 at home.
“I think being 2-3, you never want to lose football games, but I can see a big improvement with our kids every day,” Hafner said. “It doesn’t always show up in games but right now we’re getting better every day and to build this program up, that’s the most important thing.”
Wartburg’s biggest portion of the schedule begins at Dubuque next week before hosting Coe the next week. Those two teams sit in a three-way tie with Wartburg at the top of the Iowa Conference.
It’s one of those stereotypical trap games, but considering Wartburg’s average margin of victory is 11 points in their seven straight rivalry victories, the Knights will surely be ready.
“I’ve been in this league a long time,” Wartburg head coach Rick Willis said after the Knights’ 37-29 victory against Buena Vista last week. “We’re prepared that these games in the Iowa Conference are gonna be battles week in and week out.”
It’s Hafner’s first game in the rivalry, but he’s already aware of how important it is, regardless of Wartburg’s recent dominance.
Wartburg was brought up often in some of Hafner’s very first conversations with his new players earlier this year.
“They don’t like us. We don’t like them,” Hafner said. “I think Coach Willis is an awesome guy and I think he does a great job with his program, but when you kick off and have a rivalry game, you try to get after each other and that’s what’s gonna happen Saturday.”