It has been a tough transition for the Lincoln Blue Tigers back into the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association.
Season one of their return to the MIAA comes to an end today with Lincoln's home finale against the Missouri Western Griffons at Dwight T. Reed Stadium. Kickoff is at noon.
"When we go out on the road to recruit — and if it's God's will they remove the interim tag where we are able to get out on the road and recruit — our selling point, our pitch is going to be if you want to make it to the next level, come play for us," Lincoln interim head coach Malik Hoskins said. "You're going to play in probably the best Division II conference in America.
"Coming back in the MIAA, we knew it wasn't going to be easy. I didn't know it was going to be this difficult, but I knew it wasn't going to be easy."
Lincoln (1-9) is coming off a 73-6 loss to then-No. 10 Central Missouri, which clinched at least a share of the MIAA title.
In the loss, Lincoln running back Hosea Franklin finished with 119 yards rushing, pushing his season total to 1,298 yards. That breaks the Blue Tigers' single-season record of 1,266 yards set by Morris Henderson in 2013.
"It's not only how much he means to the offense, it's how much he means to the team," Hoskins said. "You can see the more success he has, the more vocal he is becoming. He's probably one of the quietest kids I have met since I've been coaching college football. He's starting now to take ownership of not only just the offense, but of this football team."
The Blue Tigers also passed for 111 yards against the Mules, the first time they have thrown for more than 100 yards in a game this season. That came with Desmond Hunter at quarterback, and Hoskins said Hunter will start again in today's finale.
"We've got to find something that works in the passing game, and he right now gives us the best opportunity with throwing the football," Hoskins said.Missouri Western (7-3) is coming off a 49-21 home loss to Nebraska-Kearney last Saturday. The defeat was a big blow to the Griffons' NCAA Division II national championship playoff hopes, dropping them from No. 8 to No. 10 in the Super Region 3 rankings. Only the top seven teams in the region make the playoffs.
"They're just another well-coached football team," Hoskins said. "Not as big as some of the teams we have seen in the past, but they play with a lot of passion, a lot of speed. They execute what they're being coached very well."
The Griffons have 29 players on their roster from Missouri, including 13 starters.
"Just looking at their roster, it's refreshing to see that they've got a lot of Missouri on that roster," Hoskins said.
Missouri Western's offense is led by senior quarterback Wyatt Steigerwald (6-foot, 200 pounds), who is third in the MIAA with 26 touchdown passes. He is 151-for-259 passing for 2,206 yards with just six interceptions.
Hoskins said Missouri Western will run some pro-style personnel, but mostly the Griffons will operate out of a spread offense.
"Wyatt's a pretty good quarterback," Hoskins said. "He's going to spread it around a bit."
Junior Shamar Griffith (5-7, 150), a former all-stater at Hannibal, will start at running back, but graduate student Markel Smith (5-11, 230) will get plenty of rushing attempts. Both players have at least 600 yards rushing this season, but Smith has 12 touchdowns, compared to just three for Griffith.
"From the 20 to the 20, Shamar is going to be their guy," Hoskins said. "He's a smaller back, he's the slasher. But once you get inside that 10-yard line, Markel comes in and he's going to be the banger, he's basically a bowling ball. We've got to gang-tackle him to get him down."
Five different receivers have at least three touchdown catches this season for the Griffons. Leading the way is redshirt freshman Devon Holmes (6-2, 185), a former all-stater at Wright City, who has a team-high 555 yards receiving on 37 catches.
Missouri Western's offensive line is led by senior center Hayden Eatinger (6-3, 280), the Griffons' only returner from last season's all-MIAA first team. Missouri Western averages 237.7 yards passing and 193.1 yards rushing per game.
Defensively, the Griffons will line up in a 4-3 formation, but they can shift to a 3-3-stack on passing downs or long yardage situations. Offenses are averaging 479.5 yards per game against Missouri Western.
Hoskins said Missouri Western junior nose guard Chris Blakeney (6-3, 315) draws a lot of double-teams from offensive lines, allowing sophomore defensive end Arnold Crayton (6-3, 240) to pile up the stats with 10 tackles for loss, four sacks and six quarterback hits this season.
"When Chris is soaking up everything else, it gives him an opportunity to run around," Hoskins said.
Middle linebacker Evan Chohon (6-3, 215 jr.), who will be the Griffons' signal-caller on defense, leads the team with 84 tackles. Weak-side linebacker Anthony Williams (6-2, 215 sr.) is second with 75 tackles.
Junior cornerback Sam Webb (6-2, 190) leads Missouri Western with three interceptions and 10 pass breakups.
"They're a veteran football group," Hoskins said, "which is the luxury everybody has in this conference. They bring the freshmen in, they redshirt them and by the time they get to be redshirt sophomores and juniors, they're ready to go, they're seasoned."
Lincoln will recognize six players today on Senior Day: JaJuan Chambers, Chavon Gross, Elex Harris Jr., Hasan Muhammad-Rogers, Bri'on Sanders and Antonio Watts.
"We're going to graduate six, which is not a large number, but those guys have meant a lot to me," Hoskins said. "It's Year 3 for me, so when I got here, they were already on campus.
"It just seems like we've all grown and matured together. We've had our ups and our downs, but it's a bittersweet moment. I'm happy to see those guys get an opportunity to go do something else in life. I just really hate to see them leave."
Notes: Missouri Western has won all three games in the all-time series against Lincoln, but it will be the Griffons' first trip to Jefferson City. Missouri Western won 81-20 in their previous meeting in 2011 at St. Joseph. Central Missouri (10-0) plays today at Northwest Missouri (9-1) to decide the MIAA title. The Mules are No. 2 in the regional rankings, while Northwest Missouri is No. 6. The two teams share the conference title with a Bearcats' win, but the Mules claim it outright with a victory. Franklin will likely win the MIAA rushing title this season. The conference's No. 2 rusher, David Goodwin of Nebraska-Kearney, trails him by more than 300 yards with 932 yards rushing. Missouri Western, seeking its first eight-win season since 2013, has won nine consecutive road games, one shy of a program record. The Griffons are 5-0 in road games this season and 2-3 at home.