Ian Carlson

The Rise of the Hornets

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The first weekend of the postseason is over, and the Hornets of Emporia State are still alive and doing well. Very well. For the second straight year, the Hornets beat a traditional NSIC power in the first round of the playoffs, this time knocking off the flagship program Minnesota Duluth. Granted, UMD hasn’t won the outright overall NSIC title since their 2010 National Title season, but that fact doesn’t tarnish the accomplishment for a team that made the playoffs for the fourth time in their history and evened their all-time NCAA playoff record to 3-3. Head Coach Garin Higgins has done a great job in building the program into a winner in one of the premier conferences in Division II, and took another big step in giving the Hornets some credibility on the national scale with the win. We’ll take a look at the Emporia State program here in a bit, but first, let’s take a quick peek back at what happened in the two playoff games last week.

Playoff Recaps

Central Missouri 31
Harding 48

The Mules offense came out on fire, scoring touchdowns on their first two possessions before cooling off on the next drive and settling for a field goal. Their next offensive drive was a three and out, but Harding fumbled on the punt return and UCM scored two plays later to put up 24 first half points on the best scoring defense in D2. The problem for them was they couldn’t get a stop on defense, as Harding scored on all three first half offensive possessions, and then added a huge game changing kick return TD to retake the lead after the Mules capitalized on the punt return fumble. With Harding leading right before the half, Garrett Fugate drove the team down into field goal range, but Billy Greco’s 44 yard attempt was blocked, and Harding led 28-24 at the break and got the ball to start the second half. The Mule defense started the second half by finally getting their first stop, getting the ball on downs, and the offense once again went straight down the field and scored a touchdown to go up 31-28. The Bisons started the ensuing drive by hitting on a big 39 yard pass, and three runs later found paydirt to go up 35-31, and never allowed UCM to get close to scoring the rest of the way. A big 81 yard touchdown pass by Harding was the exclamation point that finished out the scoring, and the Bisons won their first NCAA playoff game. Harding finished the game with 355 yards rushing with their triple option attack, and surprisingly added another 173 yards on just 6 of 7 passing to dominate the Mule defense. Garret Fugate had a good day with 314 yards passing and three TDs before going down in the 4th quarter to an injury, but the Mules could only muster 54 yards rushing against the nations top ranked run defense. Central finished the year 9-3 and Harding moves on to play 2nd seeded Sioux Falls in the second round.

Minnesota Duluth 26
Emporia State 59

The first NCAA playoff game at Welch Stadium was a pretty tight one between two teams that had each won 10 games in a row….for the first half anyway. Emporia got on the board first on an 18 yard TD run by QB Braxton Marstall. The Bulldogs came right back and answered with a touchdown of their own, but they couldn’t tie it up on the point after attempt, and UMD would never lead in this game. For the first half, the Bulldogs answered every Hornet touchdown with one of their own, including running a kickoff return for a touchdown after the Hornets had gone up 21-13. A first half full of big plays ended with Emporia up 28-20, and that was all the breathing room they needed. After scoring a touchdown on their first drive of the second half to go up two touchdowns, the Hornets got the ball right back after intercepting UMD QB Drew Bauer and then immediately hit another big play; this time, Marstall found Morris Williams for a 46 yards touchdown pass, and the game was essentially over. UMD scored a touchdown on the next drive to cut the lead to 42-26 in the third quarter, but the Hornets added 17 more points (including a scoop and score on defense) in the final stanza to win convincingly. Marstall finished with 481 yards passing and 5 TDs to go with his rushing touchdown that opened the scoring, completely outplaying the 4th year starter Bauer, who had a big game against the Hornets in 2013 in the first round of the playoffs. Bauer finished with a solid 340 yards passing, but only had two touchdowns and also threw two picks to the ball hawking Hornet defense. UMD finished 10-2 on the year, while the Hornets advance to the second round to play top seeded Northwest Missouri State in a rematch of the season opener.

Emporia’s Rise in the MIAA

For most of the past 26 years--the time in which the Hornets have been in the MIAA--the league has been pretty much dominated by two teams, as only four times during that stretch has a team other than Northwest Missouri State or Pittsburg State won or shared the crown. Three times, a different team won the title outright (Missouri Southern State in 1993, Washburn in 2005, and Missouri Western State in 2012) and the other time was a wild 2003 year in which 5 teams finished 7-2 in the league and shared the championship. One of those teams was Emporia State, and that year was their first trip in the NCAA playoffs (previously, they made several trips to the playoffs as members of the NAIA, and even made it to that division’s National Championship game in 1989). From 2004-2011, Emporia hovered around the middle of the MIAA pack, never winning more than 5 games in the season. It was during this time that current PSU Defensive Coordinator Dave Wiemers ultimately ended up being replaced with Garin Higgins, who took over the program before the 2007 season. Higgins went 3-8, 4-7, 2-9, 5-6, and 5-6 in his first five seasons before going 10-2 in the 2012 season, including a win over Texas A&M-Kingsville in the now-defunct Kanza Bowl. Now, in full disclosure, the two losses were to Missouri Western and Northwest Missouri, and the Hornets did not play defending 2011 National Champion Pittsburg St. that year, but considering the results of Higgins first five years, 2012 was a big step forward. The Hornet offense was led by Tyler Eckenrode, who was probably the best passer in the school’s history at that point, or at least since they joined the NCAA in 1991.

After Eckenrode’s graduation, more than a few people (myself included) thought the Hornets might take a step back since they’d be breaking in a new QB. Higgins and his team had other ideas, and they started the season with 8 straight wins before falling to eventual National Champion NWMSU in their ninth game. They followed that up with a big win over their arch-rival Washburn in the regular season finale, but in the process, lost a huge piece to their success. Starting QB Brent Wilson broke his collarbone during the game, and he was unable to play in the team’s second ever NCAA playoff game in Duluth the following week. The Hornets were trounced 55-13, and while I don’t think the Hornets would have won the game had Wilson been healthy, the game would not have been nearly as lopsided, in my opinion. As luck would have it (and by “luck” I mean that of the “bad” variety), Wilson got hurt the following year in a game against Northeastern State, and while he somehow found a way to finish that game and win it in stunning fashion in overtime, he would not play in a game the rest of the year, and the Hornets finished 4-7. As many now know, Wilson’s senior season last year was one for the ages, as the Hornets won not one, but two playoff games and made it to the Super Region 3 Finals before once again falling to eventual champion NWMSU.

Coming into this year, with Wilson’s graduation, more than a few people (again, myself included) thought that the Hornets might take a step back as they broke in a new starting quarterback. As we all know, all Braxton Marstall has done is lead the Hornets to eleven straight wins after dropping the season opener to Northwest this year, and was certainly in the discussion for MIAA Offensive Player of the Year as a sophomore. Coach Higgins and his staff have done a tremendous job in recruiting and developing quarterbacks, and it is a significant reason for the Hornets rise to top tier of the MIAA. They may not have dominated every opponent on their schedule this year, but they have found a way win when they needed to in the last eleven games, and that is truly all that matters. The defense is much stiffer this year while also being even more opportunistic in the takeaway department than they were last year. They aren’t overly flashy, but at the end of the day, they have gotten the job done for eleven weeks in a row now. Regardless of what happens in this week’s upcoming playoff game, the Hornets will certainly be projected to be near the top of the MIAA standings next year, and the QB position will once again be a big reason why.

Second Round Playoff Preview

#6 Emporia State (11-1) at #1 Northwest Missouri State (11-0) 1PM

All second round playoff games are big, but this game (along with the TAMU-Commerce @ Grand Valley State game) is one of the biggest. The two teams will meet for the fourth time in the past two seasons, all of which have been convincing Bearcat wins. Only Fort Hays State owns a win against Emporia besides Northwest, and that came last year. These two teams know each other very well, and it will be interesting to see how this one shakes out.

The Bearcats are led by MIAA Offensive Player of the Year quarterback Kyle Zimmerman, who is second in the nation in passing efficiency. He has only thrown two interceptions on the year, with both of those coming against Fort Hays State in Week 10. Zimmerman seems to have 15 guys on the field on offense at a time, and has completed at least 10 passes to eleven players and 20 passes to six players and has thrown for 3056 yards and 34 TDs on nearly 70% passing. And lest one thinks the Bearcats are a passing team because of Zimmerman’s stats, let me point out that the Bearcats run the ball 53% of the time, and average over 200 yards per game to go along with their almost 300 yards per game throwing the ball. Phil Jackson is not going to remind Bearcat fans of Xavier Omon by any means, but he is having a very good senior year, with 730 yards on the season. While not an eye-popping amount of yardage, keep in mind that he shares the workload considerably in the Bearcat’s substitution-heavy offensive scheme, and the Bearcat’s have not had a closer game than 21 points all year long. As it is, Jackson averages 6.5 yards per carry, and his and the rest of the players in the running game efforts help to keep the NW offense very balanced and difficult to defend because of how diverse and physical it is. This year has been very much about taking what the defense gives them, and the execution of this philosophy has helped them to the MIAA’s top offense, and #13 in the country in total offense. The Hornet defense has been a bit better than a year ago, and while they gave up 340 yards passing last week to UMD’s Drew Bauer, they did a very good job against a historically tough UMD running game. They will need to have a similar effort to have a chance, and will likely need to increase the intensity, as the Bearcats have only given up seven sacks on the year. Eddie Vinson, Kole Schankie, and Tre Dickerson will need to have a big day in Maryville.

When the Hornets have the ball, the offense goes as Marstall goes. A good dual threat, he is the team’s second leading rusher in addition to his passing prowess. Marstall’s sophomore season has probably been made a little easier by the WR crew, led by senior Mitchell Foote. Foote has great hands and can use his size to his advantage. The Hornet running game is very up and down, and typically it depends on Marstall. Landon Nault and Antonio Brown certainly have the talent to do real damage, but Marstall is the second leading Hornet rusher and his athleticism is a big problem for most defenses out there. That said, the Bearcats have one of the nation’s best defenses, so they will likely be up for the task. They don’t have nearly the amount of QB sacks that they did a year ago and there have been several big passes given up by the Bearcat defense this season, but the physicality of the Bearcat defensive line (along with the rest of the defense) is well known, and if the Hornets are going to pull off the upset, they will need to hold their own. Marstall and backup Jaylen Lowe each had big drives against the Bearcats in the opener where they got significant rushing yards from the QB position, and I look for the Hornets to get most of their rushing yards in that manner, as I don’t see a lot of production coming from the RB position, given the history between the two teams.

Overall, I just feel like the Bearcats are the better team, and that has been proven 23 straight times in the all-time series. Even with primary deep threat Shawn Bane out due to an injury, the Bearcat offense has been able to move the ball well and generate points. Conversely, the Hornet offense is nowhere near as potent as it was last year, and I can’t see a huge breakout game against the best defense in the MIAA, especially at Bearcat Stadium. As quite a few readers know, I have picked against the Hornets several times this year, and I have been wrong every time…except for their game against the Bearcats. I think this game will be closer than the past few games have been, but ultimately, I see the Bearcats’ physicality making a statement and as long as they can keep from turning the ball over, the Bearcats win against the Hornets for the 24th straight time.

ESU 17
NW 28

(Last week: 1-1)
(Playoffs: 1-1)
(Season: 50-18)

As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to post below. You can also follow me on Twitter @IanD2FMIAA.

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Updated 11-26-2016 at 05:07 AM by Ian Carlson

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  1. Bearcatfan6666's Avatar
    Thanks Ian!
  2. Brandon's Avatar
  3. mtxe's Avatar
    Ian, outstanding write up about the journey of the ESU football program...you nailed it. NW is Alabama of D2 football, their program is over the Top!! Thanks, for all you do in MIAA football!
  4. Go Hornets!'s Avatar
    Fantastic write up full of insight, thanks for a great year of covering the MIAA with professional quality entries. Looking forward to next year already!