By BEN JOHNSON
A trip to a Tulsa-area Planet Fitness in 2012 changed the outcome on Gable Field Saturday.
Northeastern State head coach Kenny Evans ran into Steven Hopper — a personal trainer at the time — and convinced him to give college football another try. Hopper — who had initially planned on playing football at the University of Houston out of high school before deciding to go the Division II route — had played in nine games at NSU during his freshman campaign.
Then, he called it a career.
That's until Evans tracked him down at Planet Fitness.
Evans told Hopper that there was a roster spot available for him, and Hopper decided to revive his collegiate career.
Good thing he did.
Hopper ran through, over and around Southwest Baptist on Saturday in front of 1,593 in attendance at Doc Wadley Stadium, racking up 228 yards and three touchdowns in NSU's 31-3 triumph over the Bearcats.
"If God can open one door, he can open it again," Hopper said. "So I had closed it once before and then opened it again."
Hopper, a 6-foot, 190-pound sophomore tailback, appeared to be on his way to big day with 107 yards on the ground by halftime. His 49-yard touchdown run to give the RiverHawks 10-0 lead in the second quarter was the catalyst.
He didn't let up in the second half, posting two more touchdowns runs while becoming NSU's first 200-yard rusher since Carlton Booe in 1999.
"Wow, I had no idea," Evans said when told of Hopper's 200-yard milestone. "That's great. Steven's got great vision, which is the No. 1 quality a running back has to have. He was able to find some things when there wasn't much there, and it was a great game. I just wish he had gotten that fourth touchdown."
Instead, Terrance Dixon — who added 79 yards on 20 carries — logged the RiverHawks' final score of the day on a 2-yard run with 5:10 left.
By that point, the game was well in hand.
While avoiding the program's first nine-game losing streak since 2004, the RiverHawks (1-8, 1-7 Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association) tightened up on defense when they needed to against Southwest Baptist (1-8, 1-7 MIAA). The Bearcats finished with 371 yards on offense — 115 of those to wide receiver Derwyn Lauderdale on 12 catches — but very few of those yards came on third down or inside NSU's red zone.
Southwest Baptist was brutal on third-down conversions, picking up two first downs on 16 attempts. The Bearcats were also one out of three on red zone trips — one ending on a missed field goal and the other on a failed fourth-down attempt from the 10-yard line.
"Defense had a great day," Evans said. "...(Stopping them on third downs) is the sign of a team starting to grow up and do some things right, because it's tough to hold them when they get great field position and get down in the red zone."
Spearheading NSU's defensive effort was linebacker Langston Jones, who finished with a team-high 16 tackles, in addition to four tackles for loss, one forced fumble, two pass break-ups, two quarterback hurries and a half sack.
"Anytime you hold an offense to no scoring, it feels good," said Jones, whose team held an opponent without a touchdown since shutting out Bacone in 2011. "That means everyone is doing their jobs...and we knuckled down in the red zone and held them."
— Southwest Baptist ran for 205 yards on 33 carries against Northeastern State on Saturday, leading to the RiverHawks setting a new low for rushing defense. NSU has now given up 2,425 yards on the ground this season, breaking an old program record that was set in 2011 when the RiverHawks allowed 2,289 yards.
— Cory Meaders started at quarterback for NSU, marking the second time this season he has started. Meaders completed four of 13 passes for 39 yards. Thor Long replaced Meaders in the third quarter, finishing five of nine for 62 yards.
— NSU kicker Drew Patton, who kicked a 37-yard field goal and four extra points against Southwest Baptist, moved into second place on NSU's scoring list since the program joined the NCAA ranks in 1998. Patton, now with 209 points, trails Carlton Booe, who has 224 points. Patton passed Trey McVay (208) on the list.
— Late in the third quarter, NSU wide receiver Jordan Robinson, a Wagoner alumn, caught a 20-yard pass from Long. Robinson, however, was injured on the play when he was tackled by Southwest Baptist's Ivan Hodges, who was penalized and ejected from the game for targeting. Robinson, who finished the game with four catches for 52 yards, was escorted off the field, but did not return to the game. After the game, Evans said Robinson would be "OK, but was going to the hospital as a precautionary measure." A few hours after the game, Robinson posted on his Twitter page that his injury may consist of "either a torn ligament or c6 vertebra fracture" in his neck.
— Hopper's three touchdowns were the most rushing touchdowns by a NSU player since Joel Rockmore scored three times against Southwest Baptist last season in Bolivar, Mo.
— Southwest Baptist head coach Craig Schuler was not with the Bearcats on the road. He was absent due to medical reasons, which were not elaborated on.
Northeastern State 31, Southwest Baptist 3
SW 0 3 0 0 -- 3
NSU 3 7 7 14 -- 31
NORTHEASTERN STATE — Drew Patton 37-yard field goal, 9:57.
NORTHEASTERN STATE — Steven Hooper 49-yard run (Patton kick), 8:10.
SOUTHWEST BAPTIST — John Colliver 31-yard field goal, 4:19.
NORTHEASTERN STATE — Hopper 7-yard run (Patton kick), 1:08.
NORTHEASTERN STATE — Hooper 1-yard run (Patton kick), 10:46.
NORTHEASTERN STATE — Terrance Dixon 2-yard run (Patton kick), 5:10.
First downs 16 27
Rush 7 16
Pass 8 4
Penalty 1 7
Rush-yds 33-205 57-305
Pass C-A-I 18-37-1 9-22-0
Pass yds 166 101
Total yds 371 406
Punt-avg 5-45.2 6-38.5
Fumble-lost 3-2 1-1
Penalty-yds 11-142 6-54
Southwest Baptist: Joey Dominguez 11-75, Robert McWright 10-68, ViaVia Manuma 6-54, Chad Nolan 1-5, Nehemiah Gross 4-4, Evan Ray 1-(minus 1).
Northeastern State: Steven Hopper 25-228, Terrance Dixon 20-79, Thor Long 5-19, TEAM 2-(minus 3), Cory Meaders 5-(minus 18).
Southwest Baptist: Dominguez 18-36-1 166, Zachary Sohn 0-1-0 0.
Northeastern State: Meaders 4-13-0 39, Long 5-9-0 62.
Southwest Baptist: Derwyn Lauderdale 12-115, Nolan 5-39, Nyran Ross 1-12.
Northeastern State: Jordan Robinson 4-52, Steffon Herd 2-27, Nick Whitlow 1-14, Tank Richmond 1-4, Hopper 1-4.