By BEN JOHNSON
All Northeastern State is after is respectability.
Heading into its second year of existence in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association, Northeastern State closely resembles a fraternity pledge hoping to catch a glimpse from a legacy. Perhaps a pat on the back from a frat brother, or heck, maybe even a handshake.
Hasn’t happened yet, though.
The RiverHawks are still gazing into the fraternity dining room while the house brothers enjoyed a steak dinner.
A 4-6 season in 2012 provided NSU with some glances from its MIAA brethren. But there’s still a prevailing feeling that the RiverHawks could still being overlooked in the conference.
“There’s a level of respect that these teams in the conference have for each other,” Northeastern State offensive coordinator Paul Lane said. “They’ve played each other for so many years, and there’s a level of confidence and respect that they have for themselves and each other.”
A quick look at this year’s league preseason polls confirm that. No one — that’s right, not a single team — finished the 2012 season with more consecutive victories than NSU. The RiverHawks posted wins over Central Missouri, Southwest Baptist, Lincoln and Central Oklahoma, yet NSU found itself buried at 10th and 11th in the media and coaches poll, respectively.
“I think we’re better than what people say,” NSU head coach Kenny Evans said. “But to this league’s credit, it is very good from top to bottom. It’s known as the toughest football league in Division II, and rightly so.
“You have to do it on the field, and in our one year, we won four, but we haven’t been in that upper echelon. Until we do that on the field, I don’t think you’ll get the respect that you want.”
It’s not just coaches that recognize NSU’s lack of clout in the MIAA. Players also know they’re still chasing a level of higher esteem.
“We’re still going to be the underdog,” NSU quarterback Johnny Deaton said. “We haven’t been in the league, and no one has any respect for us until we prove ourselves — this being our second year into (the league). We have to earn that, and I think going out with a four-game winning streak last year kind of opened some people’s eyes up.
“Hopefully no one should overlook us this year.”
Many of the same players that righted the ship late in NSU’s season in 2012 are back this year. Joel Rockmore returns as the RiverHawks’ — and the league’s — most potent running back. The defense still includes cornerback Vernon Jones and the MIAA’s leading tackler in linebacker Langston Jones.
In fact, NSU’s defense is projected to start eight seniors, including the Jones duo, defensive tackles Faafetai Te’o and Kenny Garrett, inside linebacker Jack Gray, fellow cornerback Marquin Watts and free safety Victor Johnson — an Oklahoma State transfer.
“I don’t think there is any doubt that this could be the best football team we’ve fielded, going into my sixth year,” Evans said. “At the same time, the competition level that we play in our first six games may not show it record-wise. I don’t think we’ll be scared or back off of any of them, and I think we’ll have a chance to win any and all of those games. But at the same time, our guys know how hard it is to win in this conference.”
NSU’s prolonged initiation into the MIAA fraternity is still ongoing. Perhaps this season will be the year the RiverHawks pick up their lapel pin.
3 storylines to watch in 2013
1. Can any MIAA teams — other than Northwest Missouri State or Missouri Western — enter the national playoff picture?
With the MIAA now paired with the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, it is now harder for the MIAA to secure postseason berths. With that said, it could be up to Pittsburg State, Washburn or a possible darkhorse (Emporia State, Central Missouri) to snag what will likely be two national playoff berths in the league.
2. Can any other teams produce a top-shelf running back that'll compete with the league's top two tailbacks, both in the state of Oklahoma?
Michael Hill was the MIAA's best running back in 2012. He piled up 2,168 yards, which was more than 1,000 yards better than his closest competitor. But, he's gone now. Northeastern State's Joel Rockmore and Central Oklahoma's Josh Birmingham return, headlining the ball carrier class this season. Most other teams graduated their best running backs last season, so can Washburn's Hayden Groves or Central Missouri's LaVance Taylor have enough production to contend for First Team honors come November?
3. Will the league crown be decided on Nov. 16?
Northwest Missouri State and Missouri Western are slated to meet in St. Joesph, Mo., in the middle of November and both could be in line to win the conference. Or, could Pittsburg State have a chance at the MIAA crown when it hosts Missouri Southern on the same day? Or is there a sleeper that will have to avoid disaster in the last week of the season.
MIAA players to watch
- John Brown (Pittsburg State, WR, 5-11, 170, Sr.) - Perhaps the best athlete in the confernce, Brown lagged behind in receptions per game and receiving yards per game in 2012. There’s a good chance that’s because he was double-covered anytime he ran a route. Doesn’t matter. Brown is the most dynamic playmaker in the league and should be around the 1,000-yard receiving mark this seaosn.
- Travis Partridge (Missouri Western, QB, 6-4, 230, Sr.) - The hometown product in St. Joseph, Mo., had it easy in 2012. Handing the ball off to running back Michael Hill — 311 times! — became a routine after a while. But when Partridge was called upon to pass, he did that quite well, too. He led the MIAA in pass efficiency, completing 65.1 percent of his passes for 2,706 yards and 30 touchdowns. This year, Hill is gone, so it’s all on Partridge to lead the Griffons’ offense.
- Joel Rockmore (Northeastern State, RB, 5-7, 185, Jr.) - The Fort Worth, Texas, native was only healthy about 75 percent of NSU’s season in 2012. But it was hard to tell, based on his 1,024 yards rushing and his 113.8 rushing yards per game average. And the bad news for the rest of the league is that Rockmore appears to be in the best shape of his life heading into the 2013 campaign.
- Josh Birmingham (Central Oklahoma, RB, 5-9, 205, Sr.) - What is amazing is that the Bronchos’ offense hinged on Birmingham in 2012, and with very little help around him, Birmingham still rushed for more than 1,000 yards. He also had 271 receiving yards and 424 kick-return yards. Defenses keyed in on Birmingham last season, and they still weren’t able to stop him. Look for that trend to continue in 2013.
- Pierre Desir (Lindenwood, CB, 6-2, 206, Sr.) - No one in the MIAA was better in pass coverage in 2012 than Desir. The St. Charles, Mo., native — and Washburn transfer — led the league in passes defended (18) and interceptions (nine). He also racked up an impressive 60 tackles as a junior. Don’t be surprised if teams try to avoid Desir’s side of the field in 2013.
MIAA power rankings
1. Northwest Missouri State - The Bearcats are an annual prohibitive favorite in the league. They came up short last season but still managed to make the national playoffs.
2. Pittsburg State - The Gorillas didn't exactly follow up their 2011 national championship with a stellar campaign in 2012. An embarrassing 63-14 loss to Missouri Western punctuated a 2-3 finish to the end of Pitt State's year. However, the return of wide receiver and kick returner John Brown and 14 other starters on both sides of the ball are promising signs in southeast Kansas.
3. Missouri Western - An appearance in the Elite Eight in the national playoffs capped off a solid run for the Griffons in 2012. Travis Partridge returns at quarterback, but other playmakers are now gone, including running back Michael Hill and defensive line standouts, Ben Pister and David Bass.
4. Washburn - An inexplicable loss to Central Oklahoma early on last year tempered any high expectations on a national level. A 7-4 record last year is nothing to be ashamed of, but allowing an average of 55.7 points per game in three straight losses to Northwest Missouri State, Missouri Western and Emporia State to end the season is.
5. Central Missouri - It was hard to get a good read on the Mules in 2012. They ultimately finished 6-4, but a win over Northwest Missouri State early in the season was an after-thought following back-to-back losses to Northeastern State and Nebraska Kearney toward the end of the schedule.
6. Emporia State - Instead of Pittsburg State being in the postseason discussion, Emporia State entered the fold in 2012. The Hornets won their first eight games last season before getting drilled by Northwest Missouri State and Missouri Western in back-to-back weekends. Thus, the Hornets settled for a Kanza Bowl appearance, despite a defacto second-place finish in the league standings (Hornets had one more win in MIAA than Northwest Missouri State).
7. Northeastern State - A disheartening 0-6 start to MIAA play last season was rectified by a 4-0 finish. The RiverHawks have high-end talent at nearly every location on the field, so a clean bill of health and All-American-type seasons by running back Joel Rockmore and linebacker Langston Jones could provide a memorable season in northeast Oklahoma.
8. Lindenwood - Somehow, the Lions have pieced together schedules in back-to-back seasons that don't include Missouri Western or Northwest Missouri State. Road games at Central Missouri and Washburn could be tough this season, but escaping with victories could lead to a promising year in St. Charles, Mo.
9. Fort Hays State - Starting a season with games against Emporia State, Washburn, Northwest Missouri State and Missouri Western is a slap in the face from the league. Yet, that's what awaits the Tigers in 2013 — much like in 2012. The Tigers also lost 14 starters from last season, so now a new crop of Fort Hays State players get to labor through the murderous four-game stretch to begin the season.
10. Missouri Southern - Even when the Lions won in 2012, the games were mostly coin flips entering the final quarter, except for a gimme to end the season against Truman. The Joplin, Mo., squad also lost its top two running threats in a run-heavy offense. Also, Brandon Williams is no longer roaming on the defensive line. The Lions have 20 starters returning, but there are still plenty of questions marks to go around.
11. Central Oklahoma - A two-win campaign — one against Washburn, somehow — magnified the deficiencies currently in the Bronchos football program. Over the past four seasons, there have only been 10 wins compared to 33 losses in Edmond. But hey, at least running back Josh Birmingham is one of the most exciting players in the league.
12. Southwest Baptist - Like Northeastern State, this is a club that possesses talent. However, the Bearcats may not have the same amount of talent as the RiverHawks. Craig Schuler takes over in Bolivar, Mo., and will have wide receiver Derwyn Lauderdale and linebacker Shaquille Shedd to work with.
13. Nebraska Kearney - The Lopers also begin the season against the quartet that Fort Hays State gets (Washburn, Emporia State, Missouri Western, Northwest Missouri State). Head coach Darrell Morris has a 66.9 winning percentage (95-47) during 13 years in Kearney, Neb., but beyond offensive tackle Cole Manhart and linebacker Kellen Werner, there's still quite the rebuilding process going on up north.
14. Lincoln - The Blue Tigers return 17 starters, but those are players that only enjoyed one win last season (a narrow 34-27 triumph over Nebraska Kearney). Markuice Savage has a lot of potential in Lincoln's secondary, and Jacob Morris could turn into a solid quarterback. But only time will tell.