Tahlequah Daily Press

Sports

August 31, 2012

Rude welcoming

Defending champion Pittsburg State dominates in Northeastern State’s inaugural game in the MIAA.

In what amounted to one of the most important games in program history, Northeastern State — dressed in alternate black tops for its inaugural MIAA voyage — battled the enormity of the moment, squandered multiple Gorilla turnovers, and ultimately fell to the defending national champion Pittsburg State, 41-20, on the opening night of the college football season.

The Gorillas kick started the 2012 campaign with the type of morale-killing, clock chewing, grind it out drive that they’ve become notorious for.

Facing 3rd-and-11 from his own 11-yard line, quarterback Anthony Abenoja delivered a 28-yard strike to Andrew Castaneda to move the chains. Nine plays and three first downs later, Abenoja found John Brown in the corner of the north end zone to cap a 12-play, 87-yard drive. Connor Frazell added the point after, and the Gorillas led 7-0.

Northeastern State answered with an equally impressive march on its first possession in conference history.

Running back Terrance Dixon chewed up 25 yards on his first four carries, while quarterback Johnny Deaton completed two his first three throws — and accepted a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty — to move the RiverHawks just across mid-field. From there, Dixon bolted virtually untouched from 46 yards out, to put the over-sized bow on a 9-play, 85-yard drive. Bond’s point after failed, and the Gorillas led 7-6.

One possession after an Abenoja interception ended a PSU drive at the RiverHawk 48-yard line, it became clearly evident that the only thing stopping the Gorillas was, well, the Gorillas.

Abenoja tossed completions of 33 and 11 yards, respectively, to move Pittsburg State to the NSU 40-yard line, before two meager runs and a quarterback sack appeared to have ended the drive. Instead, on 4th-and-22, the Gorillas elected to go for it. The inexplicable gamble paid huge dividends, as Abenoja found Brown for a 27-yard gain, and a PSU first down.

Four plays later, Trezz Tillman punched it in from three yards out, to cap a 12-play, 91-yard drive. Frazell netted the extra point, and Pitt State extended its lead to 14-6.

After back-to-back Gorilla turnovers — and back-to-back failures to capitalize on the part of the home team — Pitt State went on another lengthy road trip.

Briceton Wilson fired up the engine with a 16-yard run on the first play of the drive, followed by pass completions of 16, 25 and 25, respectively.

After a chop block and a holding penalty backed the Gorillas up to 2nd-and-goal from the 25-yard line, Abenoja connected with Tillman on a 22-yard completion to the NSU 3. On the ensuing play, Abenoja found tight end Brady Letchworth to close out a 9-play, 74-yard drive, with just 30 seconds remaining in the first half.

“Playing against the number one team in the country I think we came out a little bit tight,” said Evans. “I think we had more mistakes in this game than we’ve had since I’ve been here. To still be in the game and have chances speaks volumes of the team that we can have.”

The second half began just as the second half ended. Abenoja hooked up with Castaneda for a 35-yard completion on the first play of the third quarter. Wilson ripped off 27 yards on the next play, before Jeff Seybold reached paydirt from three yards away to cap the possession. Frazell chipped in with the point after, and Pittsburg State took a commanding 28-6 lead.

The RiverHawks showed signs of life on the next possession, marching into the PSU red zone in four plays, before Deaton tossed a back-breaking interception to linebacker Nate Dreiling.

The Gorillas attempted their first punt of the contest at the 7:16 mark of the third quarter, leading by 22, but kept things moderately respectable with incessant miscues of their own.

John Brown took a Beers shanked punt 69 yards the other direction for a score, but the return was negated by a Gorillas penalty. In this case, the transgression cost the visitors only three points, as Frazell drilled a 29-yard field goal five plays later to push the advantage to 31-13.

Still, Northeastern State showed resolve.

On the following drive, Deaton capped a 3-play, 68-yard drive in 50 seconds, with a 30-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Sherman. Bond was good on the extra point, and the PSU lead was cut to 31-13.

On the ensuing kick off, head coach Kenny Evans went to his bag of tricks, dialing up a successfully executed onside kick.

True to the evening’s early narrative, Deaton ended the drive by firing a pass into the hands of a gentleman in the wrong color jersey.

“Getting the ball back with momentum and not converting was huge,” said Evans. “When you’ve got momentum you’ve got to go with it and use it.”

Two possessions later Abenoja connected on passes of 5, 26, 18 and 21, respectively; the last of which Brown hauled in for a 21-yard touchdown. Frazzel added the PAT and Pitt State players, coaches and fans began to make dinner plans.

When the dust settled on the regular season ribbon cutting ceremony, Dixon piled up 175 total yards and two touchdowns for the RiverHawks.

“I was ready to go. I’d been waiting all summer to play these guys,” said Dixon of the team that recruited him to play defense. “It doesn’t start with me. My offensive line is upgraded so much this year. I give the credit to those guys. They played a hell of a game.”

Deaton, on the other hand, completed only 15 of 38 passes, for 244 yards and three interceptions.

“Late in the game you’re trying to force things to happen,” said Evans. “Every team throws an interception or two at the end of the game when you’re trying to play catch up ball. We had some key drops on some third down plays that could have swung momentum, as well.”

Adding insult to injury, his counterpart, Abenoja, was the game’s most outstanding player. The Overland Park, Kan.-native finished 26-of-36, with 378 yards and three touchdowns.

Up next for Northeastern State, Evans & Co. will travel to Joplin, Mo., Saturday, Sept. 8, for a second-consecutive MIAA matchup with Missouri Southern State. Kickoff is slated for 6 p.m.

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