For the fourth time in his already storied career, Nate Dreiling will start the season opener at linebacker for the Pittsburg State Gorillas.
But Saturday night will mark a first for the senior three-time All-American. For the first time since he arrived in Pittsburg, the Gorillas will open the season in front of their home crowd.
Pitt State hosts Northeastern State tonight at 7 for the first season opener at Carnie Smith Stadium since 2009.
“Just talking to all my friends and students around campus, I know it’s going to be a packed house and they’re going to be ready to roll,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll put a show on for them.”
The Gorillas, ranked 21st in the preseason AFCA Division II poll, begin a 2013 campaign they hope will wash away the taste of last year’s playoff-less 7-3 season.
Pitt State returns 15 starters — seven offense and eight defense — from last season, pushing expectations through the roof just two seasons removed from a national championship.
“The excitement level may be at an all-time high as far as being excited and being fired up and ready to go,” Pitt State coach Tim Beck said. “Our players, since January, have been eager to get back onto the field. We feel like we had a great offseason and hopefully it carries over to the fall.”
The Gorillas face a Northeastern State team that struggled mightily in its MIAA debut last season before finding some footing and finishing with a four-game winning streak.
The RiverHawks return quarterback Johnny Deaton, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound junior who threw for 1,861 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago. Also back is a pair of dangerous running backs — all-MIAA selection Joel Rockmore and Terrance Dixon, who rushed for 128 yards and two touchdowns against Pitt State in last year’s season opener.
“They gashed us on a couple long runs where it was just one person with a missed assignment,” Dreiling said. “Hopefully we can get that figured out but at the same time they have good athletes all over the field. We know we’ll have to be sound defensively.”
The Gorillas will look to neutralize NSU’s running game and force the RiverHawks to do their damage in the air. Like most MIAA teams, Northeastern State thrived on a balanced offensive attack last season and Beck doesn’t see that changing in 2013.
“They kind of got on a run there at the end of the season last year, and I’m sure they’re going to want to build off what they did. They kind of got into a rhythm,” Beck said. “With Rockmore back as a preseason All-American and Dixon had a good game against us last year, they’ve got two good backs. And they’re going to have good balance with Johnny Deaton throwing the football.
“It’s one of those teams where they’re going to strive to have good balance so we have to, first of all, take care of the run and try to make them one dimensional.”
On the other hand, the Gorillas hope to continue their balanced attack from 2012, when they passed for 250 yards and rushed for 205 per game.
But they said they also want to be more consistent this season, taking advantage of opportunities to finish teams off.
“Last year we had our ups and downs. We would come out of the gates and score on our first drive and then we would kind of die,” quarterback Anthony Abenoja said. “Or we would come out of halftime and the third quarter would not go very well for us. The key for us is to keep the drives going and keep them from dying out.”