By BEN JOHNSON
Steve Turner’s official reign as president at Northeastern State is barely more than a month old. But his football coach, Kenny Evans, will be trying to claim a belated welcome gift for him this weekend.
The President’s Cup.
That’s what will be up for grabs when Northeastern State takes on Central Oklahoma at Wantland Stadium in Edmond when the two rivals meet at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
“I’d like to win the trophy for Dr. Turner,” Evans said, “for his first year in office here.”
If the RiverHawks (3-6, 3-6 MIAA) do snag the President’s Cup, it’d be their third in three years. NSU beat the Bronchos 39-28 in 2010 and then 35-7 last year.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to keep (the President’s Cup) here,” Evans said. “When you’re on the winning side, it’s much nicer.”
Goal No. 1 for NSU against the Bronchos will be the same as it has been the past two seasons: stop Josh Birmingham. UCO’s running back is a dual threat on offense (849 rushing yards, 241 receiving yards) while also racking up 359 yards on kickoff returns.
“It seems like he should have graduated a couple of years ago,” Evans said of Birmingham, a junior from Luther who took over as UCO’s starting running back as a freshman.
“He’s definitely one of the top players we’ve played against. He’s the guy we have to key on.”
Against a Southwest Baptist’s defense — which Evans proclaimed as one of the best in the league after his RiverHawks played in Bolivar, Mo. — last week, Birmingham racked up 171 yards on 29 rushes.
“He’s a guy that we can’t miss tackles on when we have an opportunity,” Evans said of Birmingham. “He was one of the best players in the Lone Star Conference and now he’s definitely one of the best in the MIAA.”
If NSU limits Birmingham’s production, that could force Broncho quarterback Adrian Nelson to try and beat the RiverHawks. Nelson — prone to turning the ball over with 10 interceptions this season — leads a UCO club that is minus-10 in turnover margin this season.
“That’s a big key to this game: us not turning the ball over and taking the ball away,” Evans said.
Nelson, though, has been productive this season. The Houston native, a junior, has completed 51.7 of his passes for 1,371 yards and seven touchdowns.
“He’s a scary quarterback,” Evans said. “He was highly recruited out of Navarro Junior College. We know how talented he is, but we have to keep him off balanced and keep him guessing.”
Northeastern State at Central Oklahoma
When: Saturday at 1 p.m.
Where: Wantland Stadium in Edmond.
Radio: Game will air live on KTLQ, AM-1350.
Nicknames: NSU RiverHawks; UCO Bronchos.
Records: NSU 3-6 (3-6 MIAA); UCO 2-7 (2-7).
Coaches: NSU (Kenny Evans, 19-35, fifth season); UCO (Nick Bobeck, 2-7, first season).
Series record: UCO leads, 45-25-2.
Last week: NSU 45, Lincoln 21; UCO 26, Southwest Baptist 14
News to know: The two rivals have met every year since 1997, with UCO owning an 8-7 mark since that time. ... NSU has won the last two meetings between the two teams. ... NSU has won three straight games. ... NSU and UCO rank 13th and 14th (out of 15), respectively, in scoring defense in the MIAA. ... Bobeck took over the Bronchos are coaching at Navarro College. ... With a win and losses by Fort Hays State and Truman, NSU could finish ninth in the MIAA.
Players to watch
NSU: Joel Rockmore (RB).
— NSU’s sophomore running back is still second in the MIAA in rushing at 110.3 yards per game.
UCO: Josh Birmingham (RB).
— Birmingham is second in the MIAA in all-purpose yardage. The junior from Luther has 849 rushing yards, 241 receiving yards and 359 kick-return yards.
Looking ahead: Both clubs will head into the offseason after their first year in the MIAA.