When a coach is building a program the fan base and the people who follow the program are always looking for the "signature victory," the win that announces that a team is fully back from whatever depths they may have fallen to.
In the case of the Kirksville Tigers they lack that single victory, but 2013 has been a signature season.
A win on Thursday night would secure the Tigers first winning season since 2004. They have already guaranteed themselves a non-losing season for only the fourth time since 2001. They won their homecoming game for the first time in over a decade, ironically enough against the same Mexico Bulldog team they will host on Thursday night. The cherry on top of what has already been a turnaround season is just that: they will host Mexico in the first round of the district playoffs.
"This is something we have been shooting for. We set this as one of our goals at the start of the season, and it feels good to accomplish your goals. It is a turning point in our program, " said Kirksville head coach Jeff Jacques.
The Tigers have seen the success of their season come with a second half turnaround. Kirksville is riding a four-game winning streak. Included in that streak was a 14-10 win over Mexico, a game that neither team feels they performed at their best.
"We didn't play our best the first game and they could say the same thing," said Mexico head coach Ty Harrison.
The reason Harrison feels that way is that the teams combined for 11 turnovers and 10 punts. The Bulldogs fumbled into their own end zone twice, including once in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, just minutes after forcing a Kirksville fumble that allowed the Bulldogs to have life.
"Mexico has to come in thinking they have a shot, being that they forced six turnovers and if it wasn't for a late turnover they probably feel they should have won that game," said Jacques.
Kirksville and Mexico has all the feel of Chiefs and Broncos NFL Wildcard game. The two teams met late in the season and are division opponents, so familiarity abounds.
"I think it helps both teams. We are very similar teams and we have had very similar seasons. It is going to be another tough battle between Mexico and Kirksville," said Jacques.
The two teams both beat Fulton rather easily, both teams lost to Moberly and Hannibal. But after that it was very hit or miss. Kirksville handled Boonville, Mexico was shutdown by the Pirates scoring only six points. Mexico beat Marshall, Kirksville lost to the Owls without Makenna Cook. As odd as it may seem, if Mexico was able to hold on to the ball both teams would be 4-5 and the Tigers may not be hosting on Thursday night.
Page 2 of 2 - Both teams know what they are getting from the other, so making adjustments is a must to help keep the season alive.
"We have to limit our turnovers and maximize our offensive opportunities. On defense we have to slow down their big play threats when we are on defense," said Harrison.
The Bulldogs offense outgained the Tigers 371 to 243, so Kirksville can't be banking on forcing more red zone turnovers.
"We told them that they were going to be a big smash-mouth football team and I don't think they believed us until they found out on the field. We need to come out and show them that last time was a fluke and we are more physical than you are," said Jacques.
The Tigers have made a significant offensive change since their last meeting. Cook and Tyler Osborn split snaps in that game as they did for much of the early season. Since then Cook has taken the healthy majority of the snaps and the Tigers offense has been slightly more traditional.
The winner of Thursday night's game will likely travel next week to face No. 1 seeded Helias. The Crusaders host Marshall on Thursday.