Lions look to end 18-year drought against Pittsburg State in Miner’s Bowl


Graphic created by Nathan Mills

Miner’s Bowl Preview

It’s been 18 years since Missouri Southern has defeated rival Pittsburg State on the gridiron.

This weekend’s matchup may be the one that ends the streak.

“If we got out there and get the win, that’d be great,” first year Head Coach Daryl Daye said. “It’d be great for the school, the seniors and everybody, but that’s what we’re trying to do: we’re trying to stress that, ‘Hey, just go have fun. Play the game. Enjoy the game. Fly around.’”

Both teams come into the game with a winning record. That winning record is the first one for Southern since 2007 and the second in the last 15 years.

The Lions clinched a winning record for the season after beating Truman State last weekend 34-10 in Joplin. Now the team is looking ahead to facing a Pitt State team that’s lost three of four, including a 49 point drubbing at the hands of Missouri Western, a team the Lions upset earlier this season.

“They’re a good football team,” Daye said. “They’ve got depth as well … So they’re a complete football team. The last couple of weeks, they stubbed their toe here and there.”

Those stubbed toes have come in a year where expectations were high for the Gorillas. Last year’s Division-II national champions, many expected Pitt State to make a repeat run this season, including coaches and media as the team topped both pre-season national polls.

PSU would stay on top of both of those polls through five games, but they dropped a week six game against conference powerhouse Northwest Missouri State.

Since then, the Gorillas have only been able to muster a win against perennial cellar dweller Truman State.

This is a change for players and fans in Kansas alike as they’re used to the team achieving success throughout the season. Instead, it appears the Lions may be a favorite heading into the game for the first time in a long time, and that’s got these players and coaches excited.

“The thing that we’re focusing on as a staff, and I think you heard me say it when I first got here, is that there’s no doubt you’ll see the bar being raised in the effort by our kids on Saturday,” Daye said. “When I was here four years before, it was incredible how hard they played against Pitt and how much they want to win. The effort is there. Well, as a coaching staff, we need that every other week.”

That effort has been a bit of a hangup for the Lions this season as the team has dropped a couple games to teams they either should have beaten or played closer.

Still, the Southern boys find themselves with a 6-4 record and playing meaningful football in November. In fact, a win against Pitt could lock up a postseason bowl berth for the Lions. For a crop of 15 seniors, though, this may be the last game they’ll ever play, and they’re making sure to make it count.

“I was actually talking to a freshman about it,” senior linebacker Alex Wong said. “I was telling him that it goes by early. Freshman year goes by the fastest because you don’t have an offseason. I’ve definitely enjoyed it.”

Wong is just one a handful of seniors who have made major impacts for this year’s Lions. Seniors Brandon Williams, defensive tackle; Kellen Cox, quarterback; and Ne’Ronte Threatt and Landon Zerkel, wide receivers, will leave large holes when they leave the team after this season.

For now, however, each of these players is focused on the task at hand, and that’s bringing home the first win against Pitt State since a certain future NFL hall of fame wide receiver played for the Lions. Still, they don’t talk about the past, choosing instead to focus on the future.

“We really don’t discuss the past and stuff,” Zerkel, marketing major, said. “We’re starting something new here with Coach Daye, and you know we’re excited to get to play them this week.”

Zerkel, a preseason All-American, sat out last week’s game against Truman after injuring his leg in a collision with Lindenwood’s Sterling Thomas. That collision left Thomas in a St. Louis area hospital with a severe spinal injury. Thomas has shown some progress but has a long road to recovery.

Zerkel will be back on the field this week against the Gorillas. He hasn’t been a target much this year catching only 19 passes on the season for 392 yards.

The new triple option offense Daye installed when he was hired to be the new Lion football coach last December has limited the passing game so much that the team will easily set a new all-time low in pass attempts for the season.

On the flipside, however, the Lions broke the school’s single season team rushing record last week against Truman, and they’ll look to add to that against the Gorillas.

Southern can also set records in rushing attempts and rushing touchdowns on the season in tomorrow’s game. The Lions need just three touchdowns and 22 rush attempts to break those records.

That’s on top of the all-time individual sack record set by Williams earlier this season, and it isn’t any surprise that many of these records have been set by this group of seniors.

Some may be surprised at the success of the team considering how quickly Daye had to bring his team along.

“Two weeks prior to the signing date, we (the coaching staff) get here, and we sign a class of 14,” Daye said. “We end up signing seven to nine players in July. Recruiting never stops. We bring in 70-plus new players, and there’s 35 left off the 105 from last year. The guys that wanted to buy into what we were doing stayed and committed themselves, and they’re going out winners. Can’t nobody take that away from them.”

No, the winning record is there, but the Gorillas have an opportunity to stop the Lions from earning a berth in the postseason which would be their first since a 1993 trip to the playoffs.

For those who aren’t very good with math, that would be the same year this Lion team last beat Pitt State.

Despite the success so far this season, it’s important for this team to keep focused as they head into the most heated game of the season.

“We always have to play within the scheme of what we’re doing, offensively and defensively,” Wong said. “Yes, it’s another game on Saturday, and it happens to be Pitt. We’ve got to play within ourselves and play with high emotion but not lose our heads.”

Pitt State comes into the game with the No. 52 rush defense in the country, allowing over 130 yards per game. This will play into strengths for the Lions, who currently have the ninth best rushing attack in Division-II, averaging almost 300 yards per game on the ground.

And the Lions will have to contend with Nate Dreiling, Pitt’s resident defensive stud and defensive player of the year candidate. Daye said he’s got his team preparing for the challenge.

At the end of the day, though, most Southern students and fans don’t seem to care how it gets done. They just want to make sure the Lions can once again become the kings of the jungle.

“There’s a lot of people that come up to you and say, ‘I don’t care if you win another game, just beat Pitt,” Daye said. “Well we want to win every game. Obviously Pitt is the rival, and that’s great. It’s a great rivalry as far as our guys getting up and playing, but they (Pitt) are dominating that rivalry. We’re going to do our best to change that.”