Northeastern State’s next chapter didn’t come with a good start last week in a season-opening 51-14 road loss to Emporia State.
“We just never really got ourselves on track offensively,” NSU first-year head coach J.J. Eckert said Tuesday. “On the first four possessions it was a three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out and a turnover, and you’re down 20-0. That put the defense on the field for 27 more snaps than what we ran offensively. In a season opener when you’re on the field for 82 snaps, that’s a lot of snaps for the defense in the first game. We never got in a rhythm.
“We didn’t block, we didn’t tackle. Those are fundamental elements. You think those are things you naturally do well, and those are things we did not do well.”
The RiverHawks will hit the reset button and start over with Central Missouri at 7 p.m. Thursday in their home opener at Doc Wadley Stadium.
“We got back to work on Friday and I was really pleased with the attitudes that our players had,” Eckert said. “It was one of those that we didn’t let it define us. We forgot about it once we got done and now we’re able to move forward and get ready for the next opponent.”
Most of Northeastern State’s positives came late against the Hornets.
The RiverHawks caused a turnover on a Daxx McCalister fumble recovery that led to a score on a Jake Pruitt 14-yard touchdown pass to Mark Wheeland.
NSU also went on seven-play, 80-yard scoring drive that was completed on a nine-yard TD run by running back Isaiah Davis.
“There are some positives out of it,” Eckert said. “Big picture wise we could’ve folded and said the heck with it, but we just continued to fight. We get a turnover there in the fourth quarter, we’re able to score two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. I know that’s a small step, but at least it’s something to build off of.”
Pruitt went on to complete 15 of 21 passes for 139 yards with a TD and two interceptions. Redshirt freshman Jacob Medrano and junior Quez Allen both saw time behind center as well, but Pruitt will remain the starter against the Mules.
“Jake’s going to start,” Eckert said. “When you get down to the first however many snaps we had a lot of mistakes taking place. It wasn’t the result of one person. I just thought it was fair for everybody to have an opportunity to play [at quarterback]. I thought when Jake got back out there I thought he settled down a little bit and started making some better decisions.”
Davis led the RiverHawks on the ground with 38 yards on nine carries. Wheeland led all NSU receivers with five catches for 76 yards, while Kobe Bryer added five receptions for 25 yards.
The defense, led by McCalister’s 14 total tackles, allowed 570 total yards, but did force Emporia State to settle for three field goals. Ty Nichols finished with eight tackles and had three pass breakups.
The Mules, now ranked No. 21 in the AFCA Coaches Poll, upset then 11th-ranked Fort Hays State, 34-30, in their season opener in Warrensburg, Missouri last Thursday.
Central Missouri was balanced on offense. Quarterback Brook Bolles threw for 271 yards and three touchdowns, and running back Koby Wilkerson totaled 103 yards on just 10 carries to lead the rushing attack. Receiver Shae Wyatt was Bolles’ top go-to target with four grabs for 145 yards, including a 65-yard TD reception. The Mules ended with 516 total yards, 271 through the air and 245 on the ground.
“When you at them they’re very, very talented,” Eckert said. “Their quarterback is back and he obviously had a really good year in 2017 and got hurt last year. He makes it happen. He controls everything, he makes a lot of great decisions, he can beat you with his arm and his feet. He’s a playmaker. They’ve got a bunch of athletes around him as well.”
Defensively, Central Missouri allowed 470 total yards in week one. Defensive back Tyron Taylor had a team-high nine total tackles, and linebacker Cameroon Clay had a fumble recovery.
“Defensively, they’ve got a bunch of athletes over there too,” Eckert said. “They’ve got a bunch of guys that can run, their front is really talented, their linebackers are a physical group, and their defensive backs are great tacklers that cover really well.”
Game notes: Thursday’s game is the 55th home opener for NSU at Doc Wadley Stadium. The last win in a home opener for the RiverHawks came against Lindenwood on Sept. 17, 2007...Jake Pruitt is second in the MIAA in completion percentage at 71.4 percent...Daxx McCalister is second in the conference in total tackles with 14, all of which were solo and leads the conference...NSU leads the overall series against Central Missouri, 9-6, and is 4-2 against the Mules in Tahlequah. Central Missouri defeated the RiverHawks, 62-10, last season in Warrensburg. NSU’s last win against the Mules came on Oct. 20, 2012 (24-23).
Around the MIAA: Aside from Emporia State and Central Missouri, Nebraska-Kearney, Northwest Missouri State, Pittsburg State and Washburn were week one winners...Four MIAA teams are ranked in the top 25 of the AFCA Coaches Poll — Northwest Missouri State (7), Central Missouri (21), Pittsburg State (23) and Fort Hays State (25)...In week two matchups, Lincoln will host Missouri Southern (Thursday), Fort Hays State hosts Missouri Western (Thursday), Central Oklahoma travels to Nebraska-Kearney (Thursday), Pittsburg State hosts Emporia State (Saturday), and Northwest Missouri State hosts Washburn (Saturday).