Miners take on No. 20 Chadron State, starting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday (Sept. 5).
Whatever weaknesses the Missouri S&T football team have this season, strength of schedule is not one of them.
A year ago the Miners finished with their best season in more than 30 years, but a 10-1 mark was still not good enough to get them in the national playoffs due to their weak schedule.
That's not a problem this fall, as S&T has four schools in the first five weeks of the campaign which participated in the post-season a year ago.
Including tonight's season-opening foe – Chadron State.
In a rare Thursday night contest S&T will host the Chadron State Eagles at 6:30 p.m. tonight at Allgood-Bailey Stadium. The Eagles are ranked No. 20 in the American Football Coaches Association's Division II preseason poll.
In the first five weeks of the season S&T plays three squads who were nationally-ranked NCAA Division II playoff qualifiers in 2012 (Chadron State, Missouri Western and Great Lakes Valley Conference rival Indianapolis) as well as Lindenwood, which competed in the Mineral Water Bowl.
Last season Chadron State, from Chadron, Neb. and a member of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, finished 9-3 while Missouri Western was 12-2 (D-II quarterfinals), Indianapolis 10-3 and Lindenwood 8-4.
No, the schedule's strength shouldn't be a problem for the Miners this year.
But first-year Miner head coach Tyler Fenwick says his squad has been concentrating on just one thing leading up to tonight – the Chadron State Eagles.
"(Beefing up the schedule) has been accomplished," Fenwick said. "Right now the only thing that matters is we play Chadron State first. We talked about it at our very first team meeting; we know it's a very tough schedule and we'll take it one game at a time.
"And I think we match up well with (Chadron State). When you look at our two-deep and theirs, I think we have some things they don't have and they have some things we don't have. It'll be exciting."
Fenwick, who comes to S&T after spending the six previous seasons as Missouri Western's offensive coordinator, says the Miner defense – one of the best in Division II a year ago – will have to slow down the Eagle running game that features senior running back Glen Clinton, who rushed for 1,350 yards last season, including a pair of games over 200 yards.
"They want to run the ball; they like to be in two tight ends and have a history of being physical and strong up front," Fenwick said. "They're going to run it until we make them throw it. And they seem to be pretty efficient in what they do; they've got some play-action things they do off the run game.
"They've got their quarterback back and a running back who is really good. And they have their leading receiver back from last year who is fast. So they've got skill spots they've got some experience in."
Back to direct the balanced Eagle attack is junior quarterback Jonn McLain, who completed 66 percent of his passes for 2,606 yards and 30 touchdowns last season, including 331 yards in the team's first-round, 38-30 playoff loss to West Texas A&M. McLain's top target is also back in senior wideout Nathan Ross, who caught 54 passes for 8-5 yards and 10 TDs a year ago, while senior H-back/slot Chapman Ham caught 49 passes for more than 500 yards.
Defensively the Eagles' top tackler, senior middle linebacker Shea Koch, returns.
"They run a three-man front," Fenwick said. "A 3-3 or a 3-4 but they get into a lot of different stuff off that. That's probably been the most difficult thing for us to prepare for this week."
On offense the Miners have decided on sophomore Reed Brown as their starting quarterback. Brown was in a preseason battle with sophomore Evan Merz and freshman Peter Simpson for the job.
"Reed is our starter," Fenwick said. "He's been the most consistent moving the ball. And his leadership is very good; his teammates selected him as a captain before he even won the starting job.
"We're going to be balanced with Reed. I think he's a guy with a strong arm and has got the ability to make plays with his feet, and to keep plays alive."
However, S&T's skill group is thinner than expected.
The team's top returning receiver, senior Isaiah Culver, will be red-shirted this season while he continues to return from a knee injury. And on Saturday sophomore running back Scott Hendricks, the team's top returning rusher with 609 yards last season, went down with a knee injury and has been scratched for tonight. Hendricks was scheduled for an MRI yesterday.
Sophomore Zenel Hudson and senior Anthony Moore will get the bulk of the handoffs in place of Hendricks.
Early on the Miners figure to lean on a defense that includes five players named to the USA College Football Preseason Division II All-America Team, including senior tackles Eddie Rascon and Jimmy Barnhart, senior end Freddy Dugard and senior linebackers Chris Horn and Chris Emesih. S&T finished second nationally with 45 QB sacks in 2012.
Fenwick says his players are ready for a game.
"It's time," he said. "The kids have been going against each other long enough. We can go against our scout team just so many times. I thought our last three practices have been really good.
"That first game is always tough; you don't know how they're going to adjust to what you've seen them do."