There’s no other way to describe it: Saturday night’s game with Colorado State-Pueblo will be “as big” as any the Chadron State Eagles will play this fall. Kickoff will be at 6:30 p.m. at Elliott Field.
For the last 11 years, a year after Pueblo revived its football program, the ThunderWolves have been a dominant team in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and also a national powerhouse. They’ve won or shared seven RMAC championships in the last eight seasons, have advanced to the playoffs each season since 2011 except 2016 and were the national champions in 2014.
John Wristen’s record of 106-25 entering this season ranks second in Division II among coaches who have been active at least five seasons.
Although the ThunderWolves graduated six of their seven first-team all-conference players on last year’s team, they began the 2019 season as the top-heavy favorite in the RMAC coaches’ preseason poll, No. 7 in the D2football.com rankings and No. 9 in the American Football Coaches Association list.
Their 36-7 victory over Dixie State in St. George, Utah, in the season-opener on Saturday night did nothing to diminish any of those lofty assessments. They rushed for 244 yards and four touchdowns and completed 15 passes for 335 yards, giving them 579 yards of total offense.
Pueblo held the Trailblazers to just 59 yards rushing and a total of 210 yards. The Wolves possessed the ball 40 of the 60 minutes and outdowned the hosts 28-11.
The Chadron State coaches and players know what they’re up against.
“We know they’re a good team and we’re glad to have the opportunity to play them, particularly at home,” said CSC head coach Jay Long. “We’ll have to play well the entire game, not just the second half like we did at Black Hills on Saturday night, but I know we’ll give it our best.”
Long added that the Eagles should have learned from their experience at Spearfish, where they trailed 17-0 at halftime, but caught fire in the second half to win 48-31.
“We know can’t start like that again, fixed it and will make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Long said.
Offensive coordinator Logan Masters said Pueblo has a great defense, is well-coached, aggressive and plays hard. He placed much of the blame for the dismal start at Black Hills on himself.
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“I was too conservative (with the play calling) at the start, we were both rusty and sloppy and didn’t execute like we needed to,” Masters stated. “We did much better in the second half, putting together a touchdown drive on every possession.”
CSC defensive coordinator Craig Jersild said the Eagles’ defense also improved during the opener.
“Black Hills threw some new stuff at us early, but once we got acclimated we did what we’re supposed to do,” Jersild said. “We played hard and kept getting better. The veterans played well and the 10 or so new guys who were playing their first college game eventually got more comfortable and did well. We know Pueblo has a good team, but we’ve got a good squad, too.”
Jersild said the three interceptions was a highlight.
Pueblo’s leaders include senior running back Austin Micci, who entered his senior year with 2,229 yards rushing. But he carried the ball just once against Dixie State and transfer D.J. Penick gained 105 yards on 13 attempts and scored a touchdown.
Sophomore Gunnar Lamphere was the starting quarterback in the opener, and completed six of nine passes for 74 yards. But transfer Jordan Kitna entered the game in the second quarter and his nine completions netted 261 yards. He also ran for two TDs.
Kitna’s father, Jon, was an NFL quarterback for 12 years and is now the quarterback coach for the Dallas Cowboys.
The leading receiver at Dixie State was senior Dionte Sykes, who had four receptions for an amazing 172 yards. Right tackle Elijah Reed was the RMAC’s Offensive Freshman of the Year last season.
The ThunderWolves led the RMAC in total defense and scoring defense a year ago, giving up just 226.5 yards and 11.9 points a game. Five seniors on the defensive unit received first-team all-conference, but other standouts have returned.
Now seniors, cornerback Emery Taylor intercepted six passes last fall and made the 18th pick of his career against Dixie State, defensive end Jackson Wibbels participated in 11 sacks and linebacker Kyle Rosenbrock had four fumble recoveries last season.