The Pittsburg State Gorillas handled their game today with Missouri Southern like it will be their last game — especially for their 14 seniors — during practice this week.
“It’s a very important game for our seniors but it’s just a very important game for our football team,” Pitt State head coach Tim Beck said. “It’s our last game and we want to go lay it on the line and play the best that we can possibly play. We just haven’t played as good as we thought we should have the last few weeks. It’s important for us to end on a good note.”
“Just go out there and give it my best, give it my all,” senior defensive end Gus Toca said. “We’re not guaranteed another game so I see this as my last game. I’m going to go out there and play my best. . . . Everybody tries to practice for the seniors. In our meetings, we’re like ‘This is for the seniors. This is their last game. This is their last week of practice.’ Everybody seems to be practicing hard for us and we really appreciate that. We don’t want no work team guy to go out there and lay down for us. We want them to work hard and try and make us better. I think everybody gets that.”
“We’ve got to come out fired up because this is our last game,” senior center Aaron Kolich said. “It’s their last game for the seniors and it’s our last game for the seniors too, it’s like another Senior Day for us 30 minutes away.”
The Gorillas (6-3, 6-3 Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association) have lost three of their last four games after starting 5-0 and the Lions guaranteed their first winning season under first-year head coach Daryl Daye with a win over Truman State last week. Since the second half of the Northwest Missouri game, big plays have devastated Pitt State and Missouri Southern presents a fundamental challenge to any defense in the era of spread football and pass-first offenses.
“For years and years, we ran triple-option, split-back veer here and you know as a coach that it’s hard to prepare for triple-option football, especially under-the-center triple-option football, in just three days,” Beck said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve seen an offense like that. We have to bear down and focus on option responsibilities. . . . We’ve had a lot of experience running it, haven’t had a lot of experience defending it for a long time. Somebody asked me the other day and I told the story about Coach (Chuck) Broyles and I. We’re coaching defense together having to prepare for Arkansas State and that was a long time ago, 1989, having to defend the wishbone and it just happened they had Fred Barnett, who was a very good receiver (former NFL receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Miami Dolphins who caught 361 passes). Those are tough weeks when you have to prepare for that.”
Page 2 of 3 - Pitt State made slight alterations to its practice routine this week, in preparation for the old-fashioned smash mouth Lions.
“Any time you face an offense completely different than what you’ve seen all year, you have to make some adjustments,” Beck said. “We haven’t practiced any longer than we normally do but we wanted to be in full pads so we can get the full effect of things they do.”
“We’ve been going full pads and we usually don’t tackle to the ground, been doing that,” Toca said. “We can’t mess up our assignments or we will give up big plays.”
Big plays have led to long days the last two home games against Missouri Western (63-14 loss) and Lindenwood (44-33 loss), losses on Homecoming and Senior Day, as well as Military Appreciation Day, respectively. Beck cited a lack of intensity last week against Lindenwood and he addressed intensity at Thursday’s press conference.
“We’re going to have to do a better job of it than we did last week or we’ll get our tails beat,” Beck said. “When we got momentum kind of swinging back our way last week and then they had a big play (87-yard TD pass to Denodus O’Bryant on third-and-long), it really deflated us and it’s something we didn’t handle very well. It’s something that we’ve basically been battling since Arrowhead and so we’ve talked to our players a lot about it.”
The Lions are led offensively by senior quarterback Kellen Cox, who has rushed for 849 yards and 13 TDs and passed for 507 yards and two TDs. He’s thrown 11 interceptions on the season.
Embodying this commitment to the run, senior receiver Landon Zerkel leads the Lions with 19 receptions, more than double any other Missouri Southern receiver, for 382 yards and both Lion receiving touchdowns.
On a more individual note, Pitt State junior receiver John Brown needs three catches today to become the school’s all-time leading receiver, surpassing the 123 career receptions of Harlon Hill winner Ronnie West.
On Friday, Brown was one of three MIAA players (along with Tyler Eckenrode of Emporia State and Michael Hill of Missouri Western) named to the list of 24 candidates for the 2012 Harlon Hill Trophy, honoring the best player in Division II.
Pitt State needs a win today to finish the regular season on a positive note.
“It’s always important,” Beck said of winning the last game. “What we did last year and the game we had with Missouri Southern last year has no bearing or nothing pending for this year. What happens this year doesn’t have any bearing on what’s going to happen next year but you always want to win your last football game if you have an opportunity to because it carries over into what you’re doing for the offseason. It’s very refreshing and something to build on when you do that, just like the year before when we won the bowl game. Those are very helpful in getting after your guys in the offseason.”
Page 3 of 3 - Coming back to the seniors, Kolich may sum it up best for both teams.
“Live it up,” No. 71 said. “Live it up this last week of practice. On Saturday at 2 p.m., probably won’t be able to put these pads on again. Just take everything you can from it.”