The Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College football team usually uses Rochester Community and Technical College as its measuring stick each year.
This year, the shoe is on the other foot.
Behind a powerful offense and great team speed, the Thunder didn't just beat the Minnesota College Athletic Conference's showcase team Saturday, Sept. 15, in Duluth — they overwhelmed them.
The 37-17 score ran the Thunder's record to 3-0 on the season, but the team's win over their southern rival meant more than that.
It was a debut on a larger stage for first-year coach Davin DePoe of Cloquet and his team of 42 players, which handled Rochester like Rochester had handled the rest of the league in recent years. It was the first win for Fond du Lac over Rochester in school history.
Quarterback Bryor Parisien had a huge day, completing 25 of 50 passes for 353 yards and five touchdowns as the Thunder crushed the league's gold standard.
"We didn't do some of the things we can actually do," DePoe said. "We haven't really opened up the playbook yet in that respect."
DePoe earned his coaching spurs in Florida, after a career in the U.S. Army where he served two tours of duty in the Middle East.
"I started showing up at coaching camps," he said. "Eventually, when you show up at enough camps, they will teach you something."
One of the things DePoe learned was the mesh play, made famous by coach Mike Leach in what is known in college football circles as the "Air Raid offense." In general, it's an underneath passing play with a quarterback option to throw a deep ball.
It's known for ease of progression in the quarterback's read as well as for simplicity in pass protection, which makes it ideal for a team that only had 12 practices before scrimmaging Division III power St. Thomas before the season and thus needed to learn quickly.
And it looks like nobody in the MCAC has had to deal with it.
The Thunder used the mesh in its first two games — a 32-6 win at Ridgewater and a 33-26 win at Northland - but shied away from it against Rochester.
"They (Rochester) were looking for the mesh and they didn't get it," DePoe said. "We do a lot of simple things over and over, but we do them in different ways.
"We do the same thing over and over from different routes," DePoe explained. "That's what (defenses don't) understand. Some of them haven't seen the stuff we're throwing at them."
Fond du Lac is loaded at the skill positions. DePoe believes he has the best receiver corps in the league and after seeing Deandre Moody catch five balls for 80 yards and two touchdowns and Keenan Brown catch five more for 98 yards and a score, it's hard to argue with him.
Add to the mix running back Trebian Suggs, who scored by pass, run and punt return in the win over Vermilion, and you get a potent offensive combination.
"We knew our special athletes and receivers would be better than Rochester's," DePoe said. "We saw that speed on take. We try to get the ball to the edge and go."
While the Thunder run what's known as a concept offense — route matching and making reads based upon the defense's alignment — it's not new.
"We have a smaller line that's good at pass blocking, so we're a passing team," DePoe said. "We don't try to be something we're not."
At one point Saturday, the Thunder ran 22 consecutive pass plays.
The defense has been good as well.
"It's been lights-out stout," DePoe said. "We might have the two best cornerbacks in our league, too, and it showed up in a quality win on every level."
DePoe said people started talking about his team after its scrimmage.
"We made St. Thomas work," DePoe said. "And they are very good team at that level. We played with them and they were shocked."
The only potential issue standing between the Thunder and a successful season is numbers. There are currently 42 players on the roster and as the season gets long and bumps and bruises start to accumulate, that may become a problem.
"The colder it gets, the harder the ground gets, the harder it gets for us," he said. "We were a little beat up for Rochester and we don't have a lot of depth in terms of numbers."
That may show up in Saturday's game against Mesabi, ranked 19th in this week's National Junior College Athletic Association national rankings.
"Mesabi had some success last year. They were in the championship game, they are hungry and they want to go back," DePoe said.
"It'll be a big fight for us," he added. "We are playing for a trophy this year ("The Hammer") and it'll mean more."
DePoe says the key to winning with a small team is to stay together — literally as well as figuratively.
"We have a mandatory study hall," DePoe said. "I control their night time and we are always together. We talk about team and brotherhood and winning the day, which is one of our mottos. Did you do everything you could today to get you closer to the goal? If you did, you won the day.
Put together a winning streak and you'll be successful. We talk about winning football games, but that isn't the only thing we do.
"If that's our goal, it's not a good one," DePoe said. "What did you learn from this? How will you deal with adversity? Can you count on your brothers?
"I learned to do that in combat; they learn it on the field."