By BEN JOHNSON
There’s reason for hope in Tahlequah. Just not in 2012.
Northeastern State, five years removed from a horrendous 1-10 campaign, is on its way to being a prominent Division II football program. The RiverHawks, though, just aren’t in the same echelon of Pittsburg State — the reigning national champion — this year.
Serving as evidence was NSU's 41-20 loss to Pitt State on Thursday night at Doc Wadley Stadium.
“If they’re the No. 1 team,” NSU head coach Kenny Evans said, “we’re not far behind.”
Given every opportunity to take over the game in the first half against the Gorillas, the RiverHawks stalled out on offense after Terrance Dixon electrified the crowd with a 46-yard scoring scamper in the first quarter.
That’s when things went south for NSU.
Daniel Bond missed the ensuing extra point.
The RiverHawks mustered only 46 total yards after 85 on their scoring drive to open the half.
And after making first downs look easy in the opening minutes, the RiverHawks moved the chains only three more times the rest of the first half.
“I think we had some drops in the first half that really hurt us,” Evans said. “We just didn’t win the third-down battle on either side of the ball.”
Problem for NSU: it didn’t capitalize on charitable gifts from the Gorillas in the opening 30 minutes. Pitt State offered up two fumbles and an interception — an impressive snatch on the part of newly-christened cornerback, Chandler Barr. Yet, NSU couldn’t make the champs pay.
Same goes for the second half.
“We got the onside kick [in the third quarter], but couldn’t make them pay,” Evans said. “At that point, if we convert, we’re within two strikes of winning the game. That was huge when they stopped us at midfield.”
When you can’t make the best team in DII pay for its mistakes, ball game over.
There was every opportunity to begin the season on the highest of high notes for the RiverHawks. And the crowd — announced at 3,527 but more like 9,000 in reality — was ready to erupt.
Instead, the green and white faithful left red-faced following NSU’s induction to the MIAA.
But hand in there, RiverHawks followers. You have to like what you see developing on Grand Avenue.
Quarterback Johnny Deaton — who passed for 244 yards after sputtering during the latter stages of the first half — is only a sophomore. Dixon, Deaton’s teammate at Sand Springs, showed flashes of brilliance.
Deaton also has a strong arsenal of weapons — or will continue to have a deep group of receivers, with the emergence of Cruz Williams after Jahmai Coleman and Jermaine Sherman graduate.
NSU’s offensive line is young. For the most part, the RiverHawks held their own up front and will improve even with Michael Bowie joining the NFL ranks in 2013.
On defense, NSU will have the services of a promising linebacking crop. Langston Jones and Jack Gray will be back next year, and Cayle Shambaugh will have two years remaining.
Toss in Victor Johnson and Kyler Harris at safety and this NSU team could contend for the MIAA crown in 2013.
First things first, though.
Take advantage of opportunities and assert dominance when available.
The RiverHawks have nine games remaining to get their feet wet in 2012.
So don’t be shocked if NSU is a team to be reckoned with in 2013.