Chadron State College’s season-opener on Saturday is unique. It’s almost unbelievable that a team will meet the same opponent on the same field as it played in its season finale the previous year.
But that’s the way it will be Saturday. The Eagles are hosting the Fort Lewis Skyhawks, who rallied to topple Chadron State 47-34 at Elliott Field last Nov. 14.
This year’s matchup will kick off at noon. Besides seeking to avenge last year’s setback, Saturday’s contest is doubly important because it’s a Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference clash. It’s the first time since the Eagles became full-fledged RMAC members in 1991 that they’ve played a conference game as the season-opener.
“It’s an unusual situation for both teams,” CSC head coach Jay Long noted. “Of course, we want to get off to a good start because it’s really difficult to win the conference or make the playoffs if you lose some early games in Division II.
“I’m excited about this team,” Long continued. “We’ve got quite a few new faces in the lineup, but many of them got lots of repetitions last season when we had so many injuries. We just need to be consistent with what we do well and not make mistakes.”
Fort Lewis has made more changes than the Eagles since the book closed on the 2015 season.
After leading the Skyhawks to a 7-4 season, their best in a decade, last year’s head coach, John L. Smith, left to become the head mentor at Kentucky State University. He was replaced by Ed Rufilato, the team’s defensive coordinator the past four seasons and before that the head coach at both Fort Lewis and New Mexico Highlands.
The Skyhawks also have a different quarterback this season-thank goodness. Last year’s signal caller against the Eagles was Allen Thigpen, who had one of the best games any quarterback has ever had against Chadron State.
He completed nine of 12 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns, carried the ball 17 times for 157 yards, and, for good measure, returned the Eagles’ onside kick with 45 yards for a touchdown with 14 seconds remaining.
Thigpen’s performance was enough to overcome the four touchdown passes that CSC quarterback Matt Vinson threw to wide receiver Matt Reader to match the Eagles’ single-game record.
Fort Lewis’s starting quarterback Saturday figures to be sophomore Bo Coleman, who completed eight of 11 passes for 50 yards last season.
Also available is Larry Cutbirth, a 6-foot-5, 215 pound transfer who threw for 5,000 yards and 45 touchdowns at Citrus College, a community college in California, in 2013 and 2014 before being on the roster at Southeastern Louisiana last fall.
In another bit of irony, Cutbirth was the teammate of CSC cornerback Trevon Mosley, when both played for Etiwanda High in Fontana, Calif.
Among the offensive returnees for the Skyhawks is PJ Hall, a 5-6, 181-pound junior tailback. He rushed for 1,128 yards and scored eight touchdowns last fall. He carried 30 times for 94 yards against the Eagles last November.
The Eagles’ starting lineup Saturday will be a mix of old and new. Offensively, four of the five starters in the line from a year ago are back, along with sophomore quarterback TD Stein, the starter prior to suffering a hand injury in the fourth game a year ago, and tailbacks Derek Jackson and Cody Paul.
Seniors Marcus Brown and Kyle Hooper are slated to start at the wide receiver slots and Max Gray, who grabbed 40 passes for 392 yards as a redshirt freshman last fall, has returned on the inside. Junior Jack Dobyns is the probable starter at tight end.
Reader, who scored TDs on six of his 12 catches a year ago, also will undoubtedly get lots of playing time again.
Defensively, the Eagles return their eight primary defensive linemen from a year ago and plan to rotate them onto the field about equally again this fall.
Also back are three players who saw almost full-time action in the secondary last season. They are twins Ryan and Brian Wood and Kyle Durtsche, who combined for 234 tackles.
The Eagles are counting on Steve Allen and DaVante Thomas, both seniors transfers, to fill the bill at cornerback, a problem area because of injuries and inexperience last season.
Aside from all-conference standout Colin Eisenman, the Eagles dont have anyone with much more than token playing time at linebacker last fall.
However, senior Courtland Joshua was a part-time starter who was credited with 35 tackles in 2014 and the coaches believe former Chadron High standout, Keenan Johnson, who is expected to start at inside linebacker as a redshirt freshman, will develop into a special defender.
The Eagles probable starters and others who will share most of the playing time:
Chadron State Offense
Wide receivers—Marcus Brown, 6-3, 200, Sr., and Kyle Hooper, 5-11, 200, Sr.
Inside receivers-- Max Gray, 6-0, 180, So., and Jack Dobyns, 6-5, 200, Jr.
Tackles—Palmer White, 6-6, 283, Sr., and Travis Romsa, 6-4, 283, So.
Guards—Matt Barden, 6-5, 300, Jr., and Jake Geil, 6-5, 285, So.
Center—Darrien Oliver, 6-1, 306, Sr.
Quarterback—TD Stein, 6-1, 202, So.
Tailback—Derek Jackson, 5-9, 192, Jr./Cody Paul, 5-6, 171, Sr.
Chadron State Defense
Defensive end—Tyler Keiss, 6-1, 250, Sr.
Defensive tackle—Truett Box, 6-2, 260, Jr./Tanner Wintholz, 6-2, 275, Jr.
Nose tackle—Mitch Collicott, 5-11, 265, Jr./Austin Powell, 6-4, 260, Jr.
Outside linebacker—Colin Eisenman, 6-5, 246, Jr.
Inside linebackers—Courtland Joshua, 6-0, 226, Sr., and Keenan Johnson. 6-1, 193, R-Fr./Issac Griffin, 6-0, 235, Jr.
Cornerbacks—Steve Allen, 5-10, 175, Sr., and DaVante Thomas, 5-9, 190, Sr.
Safetys—Brian Wood, 6-0, 175, Jr., Ryan Wood, 6-1, 180, Sr., and Kirk Durtsche, 5-11, 200, So.
Punt returns—Cody Paul, 5-6, 171, Sr.
Kickoff returns—Cody Paul and Derek Jackson.
Punter—Zach Smith, 6-0, 215, Sr.
Placekicker—Randy Wentz, 5-11, 167, Sr.
Long snapper—Nick Colgate, 5-8, 175, Jr.
Holder—TD Stein, 6-1, 202, So.