It was evident early in Thursday’s season opener that Emporia State would only be lightly tested by the visiting RiverHawks.
The first quarter lasted more than 40 minutes and the Hornets scored on their first five possessions en route to a 51-14 bombing of Northeastern State at Welch Stadium.
“We were locked in,” ESU head coach Garin Higgins said. “It was just a different vibe tonight. I just felt like our guys were really excited. (It’s) a group of young men that really want to show what they can do. Guys before them have played really well — have been all-conference, been All-American and these guys want to to show what they can do.
“They were ready to go. We’ve got a long ways to go (and) we know we’re going to have a tougher opponent next week.”
NSU opened the game with the ball, but was quickly brushed aside and just four plays later, Dalton Cowan found an open Cole Schumacher down the field, hitting him for a 32-yard touchdown pass.
“That first drive, we had it pretty well scripted,” said Cowan, who finished the night with 261 passing yards, three touchdowns and a team-high 88 rushing yards. “Just the fact that it worked out so great, gave everyone a sigh of relief, knowing if we do what we’re supposed to do, we can have a great offense.”
ESU settled for field goals of 34 and 22 yards on its next two drives, but Carlos Grace broke the plane of the end zone on a five-yard plunge with 25 seconds to go in the first quarter and ESU’s lead grew to 20.
On the Hornets’ first drive of the second quarter, Cowan connected with sophomore receiver Corey Thomas on three passes, the final of which was a 47-yarder that was carried for a touchdown.
“I thought Dalton ... was efficient in what he did,” Higgins said. “He made good decisions.”
Across the field, NSU didn’t have a possession that lasted longer than four plays until late in the third quarter. The RiverHawks had just 44 yards of total offense until their final drive of the third quarter and even that resulted in an interception in the end zone, NSU’s third turnover of the night.
“I thought the defense came out and set the tempo of the game,” receiver Dexton Swinehart said. “It was a good win by everybody.”
It was Swinehart’s play in the third quarter that continued the Hornets’ early firepower into the second half. ESU’s second drive after the intermission was just one play, a 74-yard touchdown from Cowan to the former Lyndon Tiger, who wove through the defense, dodged a pair of tackles and outran the rest of the field to the goal line.
“Dalton made a good throw, I just got space,” Swinehart said. “We’re all making plays. We’re just hungry, us receivers, just trying to make plays and get the job done.”
ESU’s receiving corps, perhaps the Hornets’ most inexperienced unit coming into the season, saw eight different players make catches, with Swinehart reaching 112 yards and Thomas finishing with 99.
It was a breath of fresh air for ESU, which had little scouting material to work with entering the game as the RiverHawks are working with a new coaching staff and a large influx of new players.
“We were very well prepared, I think, for anything,” Cowan said. “We kept the playbook simple and ... I think it worked out pretty well.”
“They’re trying to establish their football program,” Higgins said. “(They’ve) got a brand new coaching staff, coming off a bad year, but I was proud of how our guys came out. Defensively, I thought we played the way we needed to.”
That included a trifecta of turnovers, two of the interceptions coming from Lawson Holbert.
“We had to come and mainly prove to ourselves that we could be sound fundamentally,” Holbert said. “Then as the game went on, it was really promising.”
Promising indeed, regardless of which unit the Hornets had on the field. That also included the special teams unit. A season ago, ESU’s young kickers only made good on a pair of field goal tries.
Tuesday, Clark Schoonover made three field goals and was on point with six point-after-kick opportunities.
“I want to score (touchdowns) when we’re in the red zone, but I can’t be more happy for our kicking (team),” Higgins said. “Going through what we went through last year ... making those field goals, that’s huge for his confidence moving forward.
“We just struggled in that area last year. Those guys have worked really hard.”
Next week, the journey will likely get tougher as ESU will travel to Pittsburg State for a Saturday night game in “The Jungle.”
“You look at the scoreboard and you think we had a great game,” Cowan said. “We did, we had guys make plays all over the field. But the main thing I’m taking away from this game is the amount of improvements we can make going into next week. We had mental errors, we had so much stuff we can clean up.”
NSU 0 0 0 14 —14
ESU 20 10 14 7 — 51
12:36 ESU Schumacher,Cole 32 yd pass from Cowan,Dalton (Schoonover,Clar kick) 0 — 7
07:41 ESU Schoonover,Clar 34 yd field goal 0 — 10
03:42 ESU Schoonover,Clar 22 yd field goal 0 — 13
00:25 ESU Grace,Carlos 5 yd run (Schoonover,Clar kick) 0 — 20
12:24 ESU Thomas,Corey 47 yd pass from Cowan,Dalton (Schoonover,Clar kick) 0 — 27
03:32 ESU Schoonover,Clar 27 yd field goal 0 — 30
10:54 ESU Swinehart,Dexto 74 yd pass from Cowan,Dalton (Schoonover,Clar kick) 0 — 37
05:40 ESU Surface,Seth 6 yd pass from Gleason,Braden (Schoonover,Clar kick) 0 — 44
10:25 ESU Boyce,Calvin 3 yd run (Schoonover,Clar kick) 0 — 51
07:43 NSU Isaiah Davis 9 yd run (Brady Ellsworth kick) 7 — 51
06:49 NSU Mark Wheeland 14 yd pass from Jake Pruitt (Brady Ellsworth kick) 14 — 51