ESU football entrance

Emporia State will take the field for the first time since Nov. 2019 when it hosts Central Oklahoma at 7 p.m. on Saturday.

One year, nine months and 26 days.

That’s how long it will have been since Francis G. Welch Stadium was last the site of an official Emporia State football game by the time the Hornets take the field against the Central Oklahoma Bronchos on Saturday.

“The home opener’s always the biggest one,” said senior linebacker Gee Stanley. “You’ve always got to set the tone for the year.”

The last time Emporia State played an official football game in its home stadium was Nov. 16, 2019, a contest it won 34-14 against these same Bronchos to close out that season. No one had any clue then that that would be the last game the Hornets would play for a very long time.

Thankfully, that long, forced break away from legit competition came to an end last Saturday when Emporia State opened the 2021 season with a 38-7 win on the road at Northeastern State.

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Braden Gleason churned out a career-high 322 passing yards and tossed three touchdown passes. One of those TDs went to junior wide receiver Cole Schumacher, who caught the ball five yards past the line of scrimmage, broke a tackle, curled outside and raced 70 yards down the sideline to the endzone on the Hornets’ first drive of the game.

“Absolutely caught me by surprise,” Schumacher said of the score. “The play design that we ran, that’s good for about six [yards]. That’s a good play for us. Once I turned it up the sideline, I think that was a shock to everybody in that stadium -- including me, probably mostly me. But it was pretty fun. Definitely the longest I’ve had yet.”

Head coach Garin Higgins said he was impressed by the way Gleason quarterbacked his team given the long time away from the field and Gleason’s relative lack of experience.

“I thought he made good decisions,” he said. “He protected the football and threw the ball away when he needed to. I think he’s gaining confidence. … He knows that we’re going to have a bigger test and bigger challenge this week, but he’s got a lot of confidence right now. He’s smart, knows where he’s going with the football and I can’t say enough how good he wants to become.”

The Hornets added 143 yards on the ground, splitting touches among a committee of ball carriers. Canaan Brooks led the way with 52 yards and a touchdown in his first game as a Hornet, while Calvin Boyce contributed 50 and Billy Ross, Jr. added 29.

“I think all three of them played really well,” Higgins said. “Canaan Brooks is a transfer for us from South Dakota and he’s big, physical, can run. I thought he did a really good job. He had a touchdown there in the second quarter. And then Billy Ross adds a different dimension for us where we can get him out on the perimeter and he catches the ball realy well. And then Calvin is one of those backs that [has a] low center of gravity, really runs at this low pad level, understands our offense. … You want to have depth at that position, so I think they’re only going to get better as we progress.”

Meanwhile, the Hornet defense dominated in game on, limiting the RiverHawks to just 159 yards of total offense and 10 three-and-outs.

“Defensively, it was good,” Stanley said. “We all had the chemistry that we were looking forward to having and we were well prepared for that game.”

Higgins credited the defense’s success to its team speed and its determination every single play.

“I thought they played hard,” he said. “That’s one of the things that we talk a lot about every single day in meetings, every single day in practice is loafs (plays in which a player does not exert full effort). It’s a big emphasis for us, and I know that a lot of people say that, but I think our players pride themselves on that.”

But Northeastern State -- now the loser of 25 straight -- is admittedly lesser competition than the teams Emporia State will face the rest of this season. That includes Central Oklahoma, the team headed to Emporia this weekend.

On Thursday, the Bronchos picked up an impressive 24-20 home victory over Missouri Western, a team picked to finish fifth in the MIAA preseason coaches poll and that was receiving votes in the preseason AFCA Division II Coaches’ Top 25 Poll.

Central Oklahoma is led by junior dual-threat quarterback Stephon Brown, who transferred into the program from TCU in January. While he did not make it onto the field in a Horned Frog uniform, prior to going to TCU, he played one season at Independence Community College where he threw for over 1,400 yards and 16 touchdowns while rushing for over 500 yards and seven more TDs in 10 game appearances.

Last Thursday, Brown completed 17 of 27 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown in his Broncho debut. He also added 126 yards and a touchdown on 14 rushing attempts, including a 45-yard score.

“He’s pretty versatile, has a really good arm, he can run,” Stanley said. “But if we come back to our assignments, our keys and stuff, we should be able to hold him pretty good.

But Higgins warned that the offense isn’t just Brown by himself and that the Bronchos have a variety of players who can wreak havoc.

“They also have talented receivers, guys that can make plays,” he said. “And they play a bevy of different running backs and all of them are good. So it’s going to be a big challenge for our guys.”

Running backs Gardner Jayce had 43 rushing yards on 13 carries while Payton Scott had 25 yards and a touchdown on nine attempts against Missouri Western. Markiese King led the team in receiving yards last week with four catches for 64 yards and a touchdown.

The Central Oklahoma defense held the Missouri Western offense to 338 total yards after the Griffons averaged 446.8 yards per game in 2019.

Dustin Landry is the new defensive coordinator for the Bronchos, having moved over from West Georgia prior to what would have been the 2020 season. Higgins said that this makes it a bit harder to scout the Central Oklahoma defense.

“It’s not like you can go back and look at 2019 film,” he said. “You have one game film on them basically. And they do a lot of man coverage and they’ve got a lot of skilled players. They want them to be able to play fast. … It’ll be a big challenge for our receivers. We’ve got a young crew, and I think we’ve got a lot of potential, but we haven’t quite proven ourselves yet.”

Schumacher said that the way Central Oklahoma plays pass coverage is fairly unique compared to the rest of the MIAA.

“It’s something we really have to prepare for in our individual work to practice and then just getting a look from our scout team, who also weren’t really used to running man,” he said. “I think that’ll be the biggest challenge amongst our room, but we’re going to have to put in really good effort and be really physical.”

When the Hornets and the Bronchos last matched up in 2019, Emporia State’s defense -- its strength that year and this year -- kept Central Oklahoma’s offense contained to just 175 yard while the Hornet offense -- led by Gleason at that point in the season -- put up 349 total yards in the win.

The Hornets and the Bronchos will kick off at Welch Stadium at 7 p.m. Saturday. In honor of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, all first responders, healthcare workers and military servicemen and women will receive a free general admission ticket.

Higgins called on all Emporia State fans to make an effort to finally get back out to the stadium to watch their team take the field again.

“We want to have a big crowd; we need to have a big crowd,” he said. “Anybody listening in the community of Emporia, … we haven’t played there in however many days, so let’s be thankful that we are. Let’s pack the place. I’m looking forward to hearing our crowd back behind me when we have big plays. It’s been a while since I’ve heard that.”

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