If South Dakota School of Mines football coach Zach Tinker could describe the Hardrockers meetings with William Jewell College, he would call it a loose game.
The past three seasons, the two teams are about as loose as can be. In 2014, the ‘Rockers beat the Cardinals 62-44, followed by 35-14 in 2015 and 64-41 last season. The two teams will open the season tonight in Liberty, Mo., with kickoff slated for 5 p.m. MT.
Tinker said Alabama and Clemson both had great defensive teams and when they played in the championship game, it became a loose game. It was the same thing about the Super Bowl last year.
“For whatever reason, they (William Jewell) have been good at quarterback, we’ve been good at quarterback, and they have some guys who are tough to cover, and we have some guys who are tough to cover,” Tinker said. “The game is just pretty loose when we play them.
“But if we can find a way to win 7-6, I’ll take it for sure.”
It’s game one and Tinker said that every coach will tell you that you don’t place any value on style. It’s all about finding a way to win one game.
“How you do it, what it looks like, is so irreverent,” he said. “It’s all about finding a way to win. That’s our plan.”
William Jewell, a member of the Great Lakes Valley Conference, was 1-9 last season, its lone win coming on the final game of the season.
The Hardrockers will also look to get the season off on the right foot after stumbling to close the 2016 season with five straight losses after opening 5-1.
Tinker said there has been enough analysis of last season and how it ended is far behind them.
“I don’t think it has a whole heck of a lot to do with this,” he said. “Are the kids a little extra motivated? Maybe. Are the kids ready to play just because you should be ready to play for the first game of the year? Yeah.
“I think we have the proper balance of confidence and awareness of the challenge, so it is time to go play.”
Just what can we expect out of the Hardrockers this season? It’s more of the same with a “high octane” offense and an improved defense.
Mines has some star power offensively, with junior quarterback Jake Sullivan back, along with running backs Kevin Thompson and Dorian Cowart and wide receiver Isaiah Manley. Maybe the biggest question mark is the receiver depth after Manley — the ‘Rockers lost several quality receivers via graduation.
Manley had 30 receptions last year, and the projected starting receiver lineup after him of sophomore Ian Anderson and freshmen Brandon LaBrie and Carson Hunt have three catches — all by Anderson.
“It’s not that we don’t have good receivers, they just haven’t had a lot of game reps,” Tinker said. “We’ll get them under the hood and find out what they are made up of on Thursday.”
Sullivan and Thompson return after missing some time last season with knee injuries — Sullivan the last couple of games, while Thompson got hurt in the third game of the season.
“Those guys have been great, as well as Manley,” he said. “Robert Schrock (center) and Keenan Mahler (left tackle) have been great leaders. We don’t have as many returners on offense as maybe we do on defense, but we certainly have some guys who have taken ownership of what they are doing out there. The leadership component and the guys handling their business, that has been there.”
Defensively, sophomore nose guard Adrian Perez, senior end Michael Harlan, junior linebacker Chris Counce, sophomore free safety Harrison Beemiller, senior strong safety Jordan Copeland and senior cornerbacks EJ DeVeaux and Isaiah McGuire are back to lead the way.
Tinker said there has been a little misperception that they haven’t been good on defense as he said they play a certain style that starts with the way they chose to play offense. That leads to games that are more chaotic.
“That’s a choice. We play to win, not to keep it close,” he said. “We had some really good defensive games last season. What we need is to be more consistent. That starts Thursday. I think we have been really good in camp. Our defensive line has really improved and we have some guys playing well at linebacker. Our defensive secondary has experience.
"It’s not perfect, but there are a lot of pieces there. Now it is a matter of having a big night on Thursday.”
Winning the turnover battle is key for any team, including the Hardrockers. That was an area they struggled at last season.
Tinker said that defensive coordinator Taylor Breitzman and offensive coordinator Justin Udy sat down Tuesday morning with him, going over the game plan one more time. He said he tries to jaunt down a couple of notes on each side of the ball.
“It begins and ends with the things we talk about on a daily basis; how physical are you playing, are you winning the turnover battle, how good are you on third and fourth downs, how good are you in the red zone, how much energy are you playing with and are you winning the special teams?” Tinker said. “A lot of that is about the fundamentals of the game. We’re prepared to play a good fundamental game — run, block, tackle and knock people down. That’s the game.”
Football-wise, Tinker said they have been preparing for this game since November.
“We should be ready on the football side of it. If we have a lot of football work to do, then we have been doing it wrong,” he said. “It is making sure the kids are prepared for the trip and they can handle their business on the trip.’
The Hardrockers open their home slate on Sept. 9 against Dixie State.