Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Six things to watch for at MSU football opener

Minnesota State opens the football season at 6 p.m. Thursday against Northern Michigan at Blakeslee Stadium.
The opener is generally well-attended so here are six things you can look for as a tip on how the Mavericks will fare this season. (It was going to be five, but one more popped up in my head.)

1. Offensive line. Senior Jeremy Clark, a three-year starter, is back at right tackle, but the other four starters have virtually no big-game experience. Center Mike Brunner made two starts last season, but guard Andrew Essman is a redshirt freshman, guard Mark Vukadinovic redshirted after two seasons at Glendale Community College and tackle Cordell Bell is a transfer from College of DuPage.
Coach Todd Hoffner and Clark have said that the line has improved greatly, but you never know what's going to happen in that first game. Minnesota State needs to run the ball to be effective, and keeping the quarterback healthy is another concern.

2. Steve Pachan. The senior quarterback got plenty of experience last season when starter Ryan Fick was injured. Pachan completed 89 of 179 passes for 1,477 yards with 19 touchdowns and six interceptions, but he was more of a game manager.
This season, he may need to win some games with his arm for an inexperienced offense, with only four returning starters.

3. Young receivers. The starters will be sophomores Adam Thielen and Dennis Carter, with sophomores Nate Nelson and Cody Rose as backups. Thielen caught 21 passes last season, and Rose, who was used primarily as a backup quarterback, made one reception. Carter hasn't played since the 2007 season at Minnesota Duluth, and Nelson played at Lawrence College last season before transferring here.
The position took a hit when senior Omaar Balton was injured, and Hoffner said he didn't know if Balton would be able to play this season.

4. Return game. For the last four seasons, Kelvin Rodgers has been a threat to score on nearly every punt and kickoff return, and he affected the way opponents conducted their special teams. He's graduated, and the Mavericks will use receiver Dennis Carter and possibly running back Jake Aberg in those roles.
It's hard to believe that either will provide the excitement that Rodgers did, simply by dropping back to field a kick.

5. Regional game. Northern Michigan is a member of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, one of three conferences in this region, so when it comes time to pick the six teams to advance to the national playoffs, this game will have some meaning.
If the Mavericks win, they will have an edge over Northern Michigan and every team it beats this season. A loss would mean the Mavericks likely need to sweep key conference games with Augustana, Winona State, Wayne State, St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth to get to the playoffs. Certainly, that wouldn't be easy.
And Northern Michigan belongs to the same conference as Ashland University and Hillsdale University, the teams that ended the last two seasons for Minnesota State

6. Last loss hangover. It's important for the Mavericks to defend their home field, and last season's playoff loss to Hillsdale had to have lingered into the offseason.
Have the Mavericks used that loss as motivation, or does it show vulnerability? Maybe we'll see Thursday night.

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