By BEN JOHNSON
Neither Northeastern State nor Central Oklahoma are destined for the Division II national playoffs. Both will also be left out in the cold when it comes to bowl games.
That leaves only one thing left to play for: the President’s Cup.
Well, and pride, of course.
The RiverHawks and Bronchos will square off Saturday at Doc Wadley Stadium as the in-state rivals are set to close out their victory-deprived campaigns.
“Obviously, being the last game of the year, you want to finish strong,” said UCO head coach Nick Bobeck, whose club will be going for the 600th victory in program history.
“We want to get the kids motivated heading into winter conditioning.”
For the RiverHawks (1-9, 1-8 Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association), it’s another week of trying to harness a high-powered offense. NSU will have the unenviable task of shutting down UCO running back Josh Birmingham and wide receiver Marquez Clark.
“They’re a pretty impressive offensive team,” NSU head coach Kenny Evans said.
Evans uttered the same words about Lincoln last week, and the RiverHawks followed by allowing 42 points and 464 yards of offense in a loss to the Blue Tigers.
However, where Lincoln lacks in having a dangerous pass-catching threat, the Bronchos deploy Clark, who is second in the nation in all-purpose yards (225.7 yards per contest).
“The junior college wide reciever is one of the best wide receivers in the league,” Evans said of Clark, a transfer from Navarro Junior College.
That’s high praise for Clark, considering the MIAA features other prominent receivers, such as Southwest Baptist’s Derwyn Lauderdale, Emporia State’s Ray Ray Davis, Central Missouri’s Ronrei Lloyd and Pittsburg State’s John Brown — a guaranteed Harlon Hill Trophy contender.
And when the Bronchos (2-7, 2-7) aren’t throwing to Clark, they’re handing off to one of the best tailbacks in Central Oklahoma’s history.
“Birmingham has been one of the best in the Lone Star Conference and the MIAA in the last four years,” Evans said of Birmingham, who is 199 yards shy of the all-time rushing record at UCO.
In seven of NSU’s 10 games this season, the RiverHawks have allowed at least 464 yards of offense. Last week, Lincoln’s Morris Henderson and Jacob Morris both rushed for at least 102 yards.
Unless NSU can find a quick remedy for its defensive ills, UCO is likely be among those with 450 yards of total offense — or more.
“They do some things that’ll give us some problems,” Evans said. “We’ll need to play as well as we’re capable of to try and shut them down.”
NSU football notebook: UCO features a dominant duo
T.J. Eckert calls the shots for Central Oklahoma on offense. But the Bixby native is certainly not the focal point of UCO’s offense.
Those accolades belong to running back Josh Birmingham and wide receiver Marquez Clark — who will team up and lead Central Oklahoma into Tahlequah when the Bronchos take on Northeastern State on Saturday at 1 p.m.
In Northeastern State terms, it’d be like teamming Joel Rockmore up with the school’s all-time leading receiver Trey McVay.
“That’s a pretty good comparison,” NSU head coach Kenny Evans said.
Making Birmingham and Clark duo that much better is the Bronchos’ offensive line — which features five Oklahoma natives in the starting rotation.
“They’re better on their offensive line than they were a year ago,” Evans said of UCO. “That’s why they’re scoring a lot of points.”
When it comes to snatching up talent from inside the Oklahoma state lines, it would be hard to argue with the haul that Central Oklahoma made. Sixteen of the Bronchos’ starters on offense and defense are from Oklahoma, highlighted by Birmingham, a Luther native.
But Evans doesn’t feel like he’s missed out on too many Oklahoma high school alums.
“We got the in-state guys that we wanted, for the most part,” said Evans, who has 13 starters from the Sooner State. “(UCO) missed out on some of the ones that we have.
“At the Division II level, you only have so many scholarships, so you’re not going to be able to get everyone.”
Not only is Clark a potent receiving threat for the Bronchos, but he is also one of the nation’s top returners. He averages 21.3 yards per kick return and an eye-popping 22.7 yards per punt return.
“We will kick away from him,” Evans said. “But occasionally they put Birmingham back there, so it’s then, who do you kick to? You don’t want to kick to either one.”
Evans said special teams will play a huge role in who walks away with the President’s Cup.
“On special teams, they do a great job,” Evans said of UCO. “They block a lot of people. We need to step our game up and make sure that’s a phase that they don’t win.”
Blue Tigers reprimanded
NSU’s opponent last week, Lincoln, was reprimanded this week by the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association.
“Coach (Mike) Jones allowed a disqualified Lincoln player to participate in the first quarter of the game on Saturday when the player should not have been allowed to participate,” MIAA commissioner Bob Boerigter said in a statement. “This was a violation of our championship code.”
The league said that Jones admitted to the mishap.
“Any compromise of the rules or the championship code, whether they be intentional or unintentional is not acceptable and will not be tolerated in the MIAA,” Boerigter added.
Northeastern State at Lincoln
When: Saturday at 1 p.m.
Where: Doc Wadley Stadium.
Broadcast: KTLQ, FM-96.3 and AM-1350 or online at www.goriverhawksgo.com.
Nicknames: NSU RiverHawks; UCO Bronchos.
Coaches: NSU - Kenny Evans (sixth season, 21-44); UCO - Nick Bobeck (second season, 4-15).
Records: NSU 1-9 (1-8 MIAA); UCO 2-7 (2-7).
Rankings: Neither team is ranked in NCAA Division II football.
Series record: UCO leads 45-26-2.
Last meeting: In 2012, NSU beat Central Oklahoma 22-20 in Edmond. Drew Patton’s 21-yard field goal with 1:53 left gave the RiverHawks a two-point lead. NSU running back Joel Rockmore ran for 198 yards and a touchdown.
Last week: Lincoln 42, NSU 33; UCO 38, Southwest Baptist 31.
News to know: NSU has won the previous three meetings in the annual clash for the President’s Cup. ... Central Oklahoma will be without quarterback Adrian Nelson, who is out with an injury. Redshirt freshman T.J. Eckert, a Bixby native, will make his third start of the season. ... NSU linebacker Langston Jones is 23 tackles shy of tying Kelby Farley’s single-season record of 149 tackles in 1994. ... UCO running back Josh Birmingham is 199 yards short of setting the Bronchos’ all-time rushing record. Birmingham currently has 4,162 yards, and he is chasing Steve Tate’s record of 4,360 yards from 1977 to 1980.
Players to watch
NSU: Thor Long (QB)
- The RiverHawks’ sophomore quarterback has completed only 45.4 percent (103 of 227) of his passes this season, but he’s been at 50 percent or better in his last two games. He also ran for a team-high 106 yards at Lincoln last week.
Central Oklahoma: Marquez Clark (WR).
- The Bronchos’ 5-foot-11, 190-pound junior pass catcher does it all for UCO. He’s tallied eight 100-yard receiving games for the Bronchos, with one contest only being 99 yards (against Pittsburg State). Clark ranks second in NCAA Division II football in punt return average (21.3 yards), and he’s also second nationally in all-purpose yards with 225.7 yards per contest.
Looking ahead: Both teams will head into the offseason without a playoff or bowl berth.