By BEN JOHNSON
All the anticipation is over. Finally, at long last, Northeastern State’s football season is set to commence against Pittsburg State tonight at Doc Wadley Stadium.
“We’re been tired of waiting,” said NSU quarterback Johnny Deaton, whose team will kick off at 6 p.m. against the reigning Division II national champions.
“We’re already ready. The game plan is in, so we’re just ready for Thursday.”
The 2012 season opener for NSU will mark the RiverHawks’ first-ever game in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association, after playing as an independent last year. It’ll also mark the first time NSU and Pitt State have clashed since 1987.
Battling for the same recruits year in and year out, finally the RiverHawks and Gorillas will settle the score on the field — rather than on signing day.
“A lot of the guys playing for them and a lot of the new guys for them, we’ve been involved with,” NSU head coach Kenny Evans said. “So we know they have a lot of talent.”
The consensus on both sides of the NSU-Pitt State matchup is that it makes too much sense not to play each other. After all, the schools are within a three-hour radius of one another.
But as Pitt State head coach Tim Beck points out, scheduling isn’t always easy in Division II football.
“The two schools are close enough that we should have been playing more often than we have,” he said. “We ought to be playing each other. But sometimes the schedules just don’t work out.”
The Gorillas currently own a slim advantage in the all-time series, owning a 13-12-2 mark. And if NSU is to even it up, it’ll lean heavily on sophomore quarterback Johnny Deaton.
Fortunately for the RiverHawks, Deaton is finally healthy after laboring through pain in 2011.
“He got a year of experience,” Evans said of Deaton, who led NSU to a 7-5 mark last season. “In the seven games he was in, we set records. Also, he’s healthy right now; people don’t realize he played with an injured thumb on his throwing hand.
“Now, having him healthy and an added year of experience, with the things we’re doing, we feel really good about that position.”
Deaton recognizes the responsibility and knows what he has to do when leading the NSU huddle.
“Just have to come out ready to play on the first play,” Deaton said. “We have to expect them to play good on defense, so we have to expect to do good on offense and execute.”
The task at hand for NSU’s defense will be to corral a Pitt State offense that averaged 258 rushing yards per game. However, with the Gorillas’ leading rusher from last season — All-American quarterback Zac Dickey — now gone, the RiverHawks will shift their focus to current quarterback Anthony Abenoja and tailback Briceton Wilson.
“They would love nothing better then to just run the ball up and down the field on us, and that’s what they’re going to try to do,” said Evans, whose defense will also be on the lookout for wide receiver, John Brown, in the Gorillas’ passing game.
“Then, they’ll try to play-action deep with the All-American receiver. So our job is to also keep the new quarterback off balance. When he does want to throw the ball, we need to be right in his face and putting him on his back.”
As for Pitt State and its post-championship season, Beck said its time for the Gorillas to move on.
“We really haven’t talked at all about last season,” Beck said. “We put it behind us and haven’t really focused on it since then. All the players are working toward this season.”
Pittsburg State at Northeastern State
When: Thursday night at 6.
Where: Doc Wadley Stadium/Gable Field (12,000 capacity).
Radio: The air locally on AM-1350, KTLQ.
Nicknames: Northeastern State RiverHawks; Pittsburg State Gorillas.
Records: First game for both teams.
Rankings: NSU is not ranked in the NCAA Division II coaches poll; Pittsburg State is No. 1.
Coaches: NSU (Kenny Evans, 16-29, fifth season); Pitt State (Tim Beck, 19-7, third season).
Series record: 13-12-2.
Last meeting: In 1987, Pitt State shut out NSU, 57-0 in Pittsburg, Kan.
News to know: Pittsburg State beat Wayne State, 35-21, in the Division II national championship game in 2011. ... Pitt State now owns two D-II national titles in football. ... Pitt State’s lone loss last season was to Washburn, 43-25. ... Pitt State is 170-36-1 in Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association play since 1989. ... Northeastern State was picked to finish ninth in the MIAA coaches poll. ... Northeastern State ranked 30th last season in total attendance in Division II football.
Players to watch
NSU: Johnny Deaton (QB), Langston Jones (LB)
- Deaton returns for his sophomore campaign after leading the RiverHawks with 2,520 yards and 26 touchdown through the air in 2011. The Sand Springs native completed 52.1 percent (162 of 311) of his pass attempts while tossing 13 interceptions.
- Jones, a junior from Whitesboro, Texas, returns as NSU’s leading tackler in 2011 with 93. He also had 10 tackles for loss coupled with two sacks. Jones, one of two outside linebackers, will work along side Cayle Shambaugh and Jack Gray.
Pitt State: Anthony Abenoja (QB), John Brown (WR), Nate Dreiling (LB)
- Abenjoa, a sophomore from Overland Park, Kan., takes over under center after the departure of All-American Zac Dickey. Abenoja played in seven games last season as a freshman, and this season will rely heavily on the Gorilla’s running game, which is centered around Briceton Wilson.
- Brown, at 5-11, 171 pounds, is a dynamic playmaker at receiver, after hauling in 61 passes for 1,216 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2011.
- Perhaps Pitt State’s most important defensive weapon, Dreiling anchors the Gorialls’ defensive unit at middle linebacker. As an All-American last season, Dreiling posted 139 tackles, 17 tackles for loss and seven interceptions.
At stake: A 1-0 mark to begin the season in the MIAA.
Looking ahead: Northeastern State will venture out on the road, playing at Missouri Southern on Sept. 8, the same day Pitt State will open at home against Central Oklahoma.