There are mismatches, and then there’s Minnesota Crookston’s upcoming football game against Minnesota State.

This Saturday at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, the Golden Eagles will play the 7-0 Mavericks, the third-ranked team in the NCAA’s Division II and a team that’s outscored its opponents by an average score of 40-10.

The two programs share a conference but almost nothing else. Minnesota State’s enrollment of 14,712 is the largest in the NSIC — over seven times the size of Minnesota Crookston. It’s won more conference football championships than any other NSIC team, including six of the last eight. The Mavericks have lost just 13 games in that time span. The Golden Eagles have won eight.

There’s plenty more where that came from, but it’s hardly necessary. Anyone with any knowledge of the two programs is aware they exist in different galaxies. And this obviously includes Golden Eagles coach Mark Dufner.

But paradoxically, the nigh-inevitable beatdown might be scary to everyone besides Dufner and his team.

“We know we’re the underdog,” Dufner said Friday. “Everyone knows that we’re the underdog — use that to our advantage. We’ve got nothing to lose going into this game, all the pressure’s on Mankato. … (We) just gotta show up and do (our) job and compete.”

This is a team that has long since been playing solely for pride. And as long as that’s enough of a motivating factor, it’s the one positive in being 0-7. Minnesota Crookston’s expectations have not shifted, nor has its sense of urgency, according to Dufner. The changing goals and pressures that define high-stakes college football do not apply here.

Instead, the Golden Eagles focus on taking care of the process. Accomplishing little things. Effort, discipline, toughness, positioning. When Dufner goes back and watches film, he looks for players that run hard towards the play, guys who make sure they’re in the right place at the right time.

“Are we playing for 60 minutes? How was our discipline? Are we controlling the things we can control?” Dufner said. “We have those three things as foundation goals, because it doesn’t matter if you’re a starter, backup, third-string, redshirt. Those things, you can be successful at regardless.”

Minnesota Crookston scored its most points of the season in a 45-24 loss at Upper Iowa last Saturday. While the Peacocks also came in winless, that doesn’t alter the impact of the encouraging signs Dufner noticed.

Senior quarterback Jalin Scott had a career game, completing 15 of 21 passes for 247 yards and three touchdowns while also rushing for 36 yards. Redshirt sophomore receiver Nathan Coy caught two of those scores, totaling four receptions for 86 yards. The defense held the Peacocks to just 3-for-13 on third downs, and Dufner was pleased by the performance of his special teams unit.

Now comes the next step. Dufner wants to see those encouraging signs turn into concrete symbols of progress. Takeaways and stops. Consistently putting together solid drives on offense. The goal of the process is that it eventually leads to results.

“Most important thing a leader can do is lead themselves,” Dufner said. “Focus on the process, the little things, get back to doing that instead of worrying about the scoreboard.”

The scoreboard won’t be close on Saturday, but that won’t matter. If Dufner’s message finds accepting ears, a blank canvas will take its place. And after the result is in the books, it will be on the Golden Eagles to look at that canvas and gauge their own progress.

“(Playing Minnesota State is) certainly a challenge,” Dufner said. “But I think the thing we really have to focus on is doing our job. That's what it boils down to. You always gotta come to practice ready to work and do your job and keep getting better.”