By BEN JOHNSON
Winning has become a staple of the Pittsburg State football program. In fact, no other Division II school has registered more victories since the Gorillas began playing football 105 years ago.
On Saturday night at Carnie Smith Stadium, Pittsburg State will be after its 664th win of all time.
Northeastern State will merely be after its fifth victory in Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association play. The RiverHawks, in their second year in the league, will attempt to derail Pittsburg State’s pursuit of No. 664 while also aiming to get some recognition in a league where they’re viewed as nothing more than mere outcasts.
What better opportunity is there for NSU to make a name for itself than in Pittsburg State’s own backyard?
“Anytime that you can play against a team with the kind of tradition that Pittsburg has — I think they’re the winningest team in Division II football’s history; anytime you can play against a team of that caliber and do something good, then it could be a statement game,” Northeastern State head coach Kenny Evans said. “At the same time, we’re not putting all of our eggs in one basket. It is just one of 11 games in the season, but as of right now, it’s the only game for us.”
As it embarks on another trek around the MIAA, NSU enters the 2013 campaign after posting a 4-6 mark in 2012. The RiverHawks dropped their first six contests before reversing their course and collecting four wins to head off into the offseason.
Last season’s six-game slide all started at the hands of Pittsburg State.
The Gorillas waltzed out of Doc Wadley Stadium with a 41-20 triumph. They did so because of the RiverHawks’ propensity to turn the ball over — primarily through the air.
Evans said the goal in this year’s opener is to avoid such costly mishaps.
NSU wants to make the “fewest mistakes,” Evans said. “That’s what we’ve been preaching, and I think we’ve got the people that can play. If we can not turn the ball over, not get penalized and have the fewest mistakes, then we’ve got a great chance to come out on top.”
Despite such a discrepancy in the final margin last season, Pittsburg State head coach Tim Beck said NSU still presents a difficult task in Week 1.
“Northeastern State has a lot of good players on both sides of the ball, and they showed that several times last year,” said Beck, whose team went 7-3 in 2012 — a year after winning the national title in 2011.
“There’s no doubt, it will be a great test for our football team.”
If NSU passes the exam, perhaps it will have the league’s attention.
NSU football notebook: Cornerback-wide receiver matchup highlights NSU-Pitt State showdown
Few would argue that Pittsburg State wide receiver John Brown is the best pass-catcher in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association. There’s also very few arguments about him being the league’s best all-around athlete.
“John Brown is definitely the guy in the league that everyone talks about — and rightfully so,” Northeastern State head coach Kenny Evans said. “He’s a great player who has a chance to go play at the next level.”
Pittsburg State head coach Tim Beck also said at MIAA Media Day that he wouldn’t argue if Brown was up for Harlan Hill Trophy — Division II’s version of the Heisman Trophy — consideration at the end of the season.
But in Brown’s first game of 2013, he’ll be faced with a tough task: Vernon Jones. The NSU cornerback was third in the MIAA in interceptions last year with five.
“Vernon had a great year, also,” Evans said of Jones, a senior from Jacksonville, Fla.
Last year against NSU, Brown amassed 270 all-purpose yards. He caught nine passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns, and he also had 130 yards worth of punt and kick returns.
Needless to say, Evans and Co. will know where Brown is at all times when the two teams clash at Pittsburg State’s Carnie Smith Stadium.
“There’s going to be times,” Evans said, “when you see double coverage on John Brown.”
With eight seniors returning to NSU’s starting lineup on defense, the RiverHawks figure to improve on their 406.3 yards and 31.4 points per game average in 2012. With that said, the question was posed to Evans: is your team better suited to win low-scoring affairs this season?
“I think we’ve got a better defense than we did a year ago,” said Evans, who returns the league’s top tackles-per-game player in linebacker Langston Jones, plus strong safety Victor Johnson.
“We’ve also got a great running game possibility, so I think there could be some low-scoring games. I hope our opponents’ score is low, anyway. And if we’re able to score a lot of points, I’m OK with that, too.”
Scouting Pitt State
Working alongside Brown on the Gorillas’ offense will be quarterback Anthony Abenoja, who passed for 378 yards against NSU in 2012.
“He’s a very good athlete,” Evans said of Abenoja. “He’s not only a great athlete, but he also has a great arm. He can beat you throwing or running.”
Speaking of running, Jeff Seybold Jr. — a 5-foot-11, 208-pound sophomore — takes over at tailback. Seybold Jr., a Nebraska-Omaha transfer, exercised a medical redshirt in 2012 after suffering a season-ending injury against Central Oklahoma in Week 2.
“They have a couple of new guys,” Evans said of Pittsburg State’s group of running backs, which also includes Dre Holman — a Putnam City North alum — and Steven Sullivan.
“The key to their running game is that offensive line, and they maintain blocks very well. They latch on and don’t let go.”
Northeastern State at Pittsburg State
When: Saturday at 7 p.m.
Where: Carnie Smith Stadium (7,950) in Pittsburg, Kan.
Radio: The game will air live locally on KTLQ, AM-1350. In Pittsburg, Kan., the game will be on KKOW, AM-860.
Nicknames: Northeastern State RiverHawks; Pittsburg State Gorillas.
Coaches: NSU — Kenny Evans (sixth season, 20-35); Pitt State — Tim Beck (third season, 26-10).
Rankings: NSU is not ranked in Division II; Pitt State is No. 21 in the Division II coaches’ poll.
Series record: Tied at 12-12-2.
Last meeting: Pittsburg State won 41-20 in Tahlequah in 2012. Pitt State quarterback Anthony Abenoja set a school record with 378 passing yards in the Gorillas’ season-opening victory.
Looking ahead: NSU will debut at home against Missouri Southern on Sept. 14. On the same day, Pittsburg State will be in Edmond to play Central Oklahoma.