By BEN JOHNSON
The panic button hasn’t been pressed yet at Norhteastern State. But a hint of desperation could surface in the RiverHawks’ clash with Emporia State at Doc Wadley Stadium on Saturday night.
NSU returns home with an 0-3 mark after suffering road setbacks at Missouri Southern and No. 9 Washburn. The RiverHawks were in prime position to upset Washburn at Yager Stadium last Saturday, but turnovers resulted in a missed opportunity.
Yet, NSU head coach Kenny Evans remains upbeat as the RiverHawks continue their inaugural trek through the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association.
“The No. 1 thing is we can’t panic,” Evans said. “We’ve played two top-10 teams, and we’ve competed against them. We’ve had a lot of positives thus far, and the three teams we’ve faced are all undefeated.”
Indeed, Pittsburg State, Missouri Southern and Washburn are a combined 9-0. Toss in this week’s foe, and NSU’s opponents are salty 12-0.
“Our first six opponents are a combined 17-1,” Evans said. “Now we just need to prove we can win at this level. The wins will come if we do the right things.”
That starts with eliminating turnovers — especially interceptions.
In three games this year, NSU quarterback Johnny Deaton has tossed six interceptions — three of which, Evans said, bounced off the hands of wide receivers.
Against Washburn, “a blocked punt, two tipped balls (for interceptions) and fumbles were big,” said Evans, whose team outgained Washburn, 423 to 286, in total offense.
Another chink in NSU’s armor has been its defensive line and an inability to rush the quarterback. Three games have resulted in only two sacks for the RiverHawks.
"We're thin on the defensive line, but that's just part of it," said Evans, who will be without Logan Andrews, who has an ankle sprain and will miss likely two to three weeks.
"Kenny Garrett is going to have to step up a little more. Also, Ethan Ladymon, who we considered red-shirting, is now being activated to play. Bobby Pointer has been playing pretty good and will probably get more reps."
At this juncture, Evans — who also dismissed Yun Taala for the team for violation of team rules — said there's no consideration in flipping any offensive lineman over to play defense.
In Emporia State, NSU will take on an opponent that mirrors West Texas A&M, a former Lone Star Conference. The Hornets spread the field on offense and throw the ball around with quarterback Tyler Eckenrode — the MIAA’s Offensive Player of the Week.
"He's a great thrower and an elusive runner," Evans said of Eckenrode. "He has the ability to scramble and get positive yardage, and we have to make sure we keep him contained."
As far as the West Texas A&M reference, Evans didn't disagree.
"I think Emporia is a lot like West Texas A&M," he said. "The quarterback are very similar."
Despite the two clubs being on opposite ends of the spectrum, Emporia State coach Garin Higgins knows NSU's record is a little deceiving.
"They're very athletic and a very talented team," Higgins said of NSU. "They had a chance to beat Washburn but they turned the ball over. But I was still impressed with what I saw."
At his disposal, Higgins has a former Muskogee standout who is also Eckenrode's favorite target in the passing game. His name is Shjuan Richardson.
"He's having a great year right now," Higgins said of Richardson, who has 28 catches for 452 yards and six touchdowns in three games. "He is really coming into his own; he's worked very hard to get where he's at."
As for Richardson getting to play a game close to home, he said, "it's a very good thing to be able to go back home and see my family and friends. I feel very comfortable there."
Emporia State (3-0, 3-0 MIAA) at Northeastern State (0-3, 0-3), 6 p.m.
Where: Doc Wadley Stadium.
Series record: NSU leads, 5-1.
At stake: Either Northeastern State begins to prove its worth in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association, or Emporia State proves its first three games, against weaker MIAA competition, weren't flukes for three easy victories.
Key matchup: NSU's secondary vs. Emporia State quarterback Tyler Eckenrode and the Hornets' passing game. Eckenrode is averaging 363.7 passing yards per game, with 150 of those going to Shjuan Richardson. NSU's defense, though, is holding opponents to 194 yards through the air in three games. However, one of NSU's games came against Missouri Southern, who only passes the ball a handful of times each game.
Players to watch
Emporia State: Ben Carlson. The senior linebacker has done a little of everything in the Hornets' first three games. He is tied for the team lead in tackles with 23 while also logging a tackle for loss and a sack. He has also has two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
Northeastern State: Terrance Dixon and Joel Rockmore. Both running backs have recorded 100-yard rushing games this season. If both continue to pick up yardage, NSU's passing game could flourish with play-action.
Notes: Emporia State head coach Garin Higgins was Northeastern State's offensive coordinator in 2006. ... NSU linebacker Langston Jones is leading the MIAA in tackles per game (12.3), and he ranks sixth in the NCAA in that category. ... NSU has outscored its opponents 38-26 in the second half.