Kearney, Neb. – The Nebraska Kearney football team remains home this Saturday as it hosts the surging Missouri Southern State Lions at Ron & Carol Cope Stadium at Foster Field.
MSSU (1-1) is coming off a 30-23 win at Washburn, its first victory in Topeka since 1995. A week earlier, they almost upset Northwest Missouri State but fell, 31-24.
Fourth-year head coach Atiba Bradley saw his team post a 4-7 record last fall but two of those setbacks came by four points or less. The former All-MIAA linebacker was a longtime defensive coordinator before returning to his alma mater in 2020.
The big play offense features quarterback Luke Sampson (#14), All-MIAA back Nathan Glades (#6), All-MIAA receiver/return Jaedon Stoshak (#9) and a line that averages 319 pounds. Sampson already has three TD tosses of at least 40 yards with Stoshak one of four Lions averaging well over 20 yards a catch. Finally, Glades almost ran for 1,000 yards last fall with Sampson moving into the starting role down the stretch.
A defense that is allowing a 55% third down conversion rate is led by All-MIAA linemen Nick Kruse (#40) and Solomona Fetuao (#8) and All-MIAA linebacker Colton Winder (#44). The secondary added Division I transfers at safety in Ervin Hawkins (#4) and Halid Djibril (#3). The new-look special teams features a true freshman punter, Mitchell Cory (#51), and a sophomore kicker, Drake Reese (#13). Both performed well over the first two weeks.
Last year in the season-opener in Joplin, UNK ran for 331 yards but was clinging to a 10-7 lead with just under 10 minutes remaining when All-American safety Darius Swanson returned an interception 18 yards for six points. Five minutes later, the defense produced a fourth down stop at its own 42-yard line with back Zane Schawang (Waverly) adding another six points thanks to a 32-yard run.
UNK has won five in a row over the Lions in a series that dates to 1977 when both schools were members of the Central States Intercollegiate Conference (CSIC). They met every fall from 1977-88 with the Lopers 5-5 against the Lions at Foster Field.
Entering the third week of the season, the Blue & Gold leads the MIAA in both kick (31.6) and punt (16.0) returns. Schawang is the top returner on the punt unit with St. Louis natives Darrius Jackson and JerQon Conners leading the kick return team. They both have had returns of at least 40 yards.
Defensively, UNK is tied for second in the league in sacks (four) and would like a few more against Sampson & Co. this week. Four different Lopers have one with seven players having been credited with a QB hurry.
Returning All-MIAA safety Tre O’Guinn (Peoria, Ariz.) has UNK’s lone turnover, as well as a team-best 19 tackles and two pass breakups. Next, newcomers and Georgia natives Joko Willis and Quillan Felton have combined for 17 tackles (3.0 TFL’s) and three QB hurries. Overall, the Lopers are third in the MIAA in total defense (341.5 yards per game) and fourth in scoring (20.5).
The Loper O is at 26 points and 331 yards per game while converting almost 50% of its third downs. QB TJ Davis (Colorado Springs) is totaling 278 yards per game and had a hand in six TD’s. Ten of his teammates have caught at least one pass with true sophomore Jamaal Joseph (Miami) having a rushing score. He also became the first Loper in 11 years to block a punt when he got to one late in the first half last week vs. Northeastern State. The effort led to a field goal and a 10-7 lead.
UNK heads to nationally-ranked Pittsburg State (2-0) on Sept. 23. The Gorillas are at surprising Central Missouri (2-0) this Saturday afternoon.