Eagles to play ‘big game’ vs. Pueblo Saturday night

Chadron State’s Matt Vargas (85) and Justin Calderon (77) block for tailback Elijah Myles during a football game against Black Hills State on Saturday in Spearfish, South Dakota. 

CHADRON — 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 7 p.m. at Elliott Field.

No doubt about it, the ThunderWolves have been a dominant team in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, winning or sharing seven of the last eight championships. They have advanced to the playoffs each season since 2011 except 2016 and were the national champions in 2014.

Coach John Wristen’s record of 106-25 entering this season ranks second among Division II coaches who have been active at least five seasons.

Although the ThunderWolves graduated six of their eight 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 dispel those lofty assessments. They rushed for 244 yards and four touchdowns and completed 15 passes for a remarkable 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 out-downed 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 excited to have the opportunity to play them, particularly at home,” said CSC head coach Jay Long. “We need to go out and attack and execute, just like we did in the second half of our first game last Saturday night at Black Hills State.”

The Eagles trailed 17-0 at halftime, but caught fire in the second half, scoring on all seven possessions to win the game 48-31.

“We got off to a sloppy start, but fixed it and can’t let it happen again,” Long said.

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.”

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. The Wolves’ offense also includes junior Preston Guerra, who was last year’s RMAC first-team tight end.

Sophomore Gunnar Lamphere was the starting quarterback in the opener, and completed six of nine passes for 74 yards. However, 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.

Chadron State had numerous players excel in its win over Black Hills State.

Offensively, junior quarterback Dalton Holst completed 22 of 33 passes for 327 yards and four touchdowns to earn the RMAC Offensive Player of the Week Award. In addition, sophomore running back Elijah Myles rushed for 138 yards and three touchdowns, senior wide receiver Tevon Wright caught five passes for 86 yards and two TDs and senior inside receiver Jackson Dickerson caught five passes for 63 yards and one TD. Dickerson also returned a punt 24 yards to set up Myles final TD.

Also, the Eagles’ rebuilt offensive line didn’t yield any sacks and committed just one penalty.

Defensively, three seniors — DeAndre Barthwell, Demetrius McFadden and Tyler Lewis — each intercepted a pass, junior linebacker Travis Wilson led in tackles with 16 and senior safety Tyree Fryar added 13 tackles. 

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