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Game 1: Emporia State at Missouri Southern
Time: 7 pm Thursday, Fred G. Hughes Stadium
Coverage: 6 pm, Mix 104.9 FM and Mix 104.9-TV on KVOE.com

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s go time. Time for football season, and another pivotal season for the Emporia State Hornets.

The 2015 season begins with a battle of the known versus the unknown as ESU travels to Joplin, Mo., to take on Missouri Southern. Emporia State has the stability in the coaching staff and quarterback, while Missouri Southern is all new. New head coach, new staff, new quarterback, new schemes both offensively and defensively.

There are some knowns for the Lions. Head coach Denver Johnson had decent success at FCS schools Illinois State and Murray State before a dismal 2-10 record and spiraling attendance at the end of the 2014 campaign spelled the end of the Johnson era at Tulsa. Defensive coordinator Kenny Evans, who had decent success at Northeastern State as a head coach, may have done better as Southern’s defensive coordinator from 1989 to 1997.

The questions for the Lions, though, are legion, including how the coaching staff melds together, how the offense adjusts to a spread formation with a former quarterback-turned-running back as quarterback and how the defense does with a 4-2-5 setup.

Things to listen to Thursday night:

Can the Emporia State offensive line keep Brent Wilson upright? Wilson got through most of the magical playoff run in 2013 clean before suffering a broken collarbone. No offense to Wilson’s replacement, but the Hornets’ playoff chances died on the spot. The Hornets were already scuffling when Wilson’s collarbone snapped again during the Northeastern State victory last year, and the team looked lost, disillusioned and frankly uncaring afterward. ESU should have a dynamic offense with a stacked receiver corps and a solid stable of running backs, but none of that matters if No. 15 is flat repeatedly or on the shelf again. If, however, Wilson has time to survey the field, look out. Kavaski Ervin, Mitchell Foote and Justin Brown should all have really good years, and one of them should have a big game Thursday night if Wilson is kept clean.

Does Emporia State’s glass jaw from 2014 extend to 2015? Last year, if the Hornets got hit in the mouth or had a case of the dropsies, you could guarantee a snowball effect. Guarantee it. And if it happened in the first half, there was no hope of a comeback. The only exception was the Nebraska-Kearney season closer, when the Hornets roared back from a 28-point deficit and overcame several miscues to lose by two (no second-half miscues, no loss, but that’s beside the point here). The hope is that loss to the Lopers, which saw the emotional emergence of Eddie Vinson as a team leader, reestablished the fight the Hornets have been known for the prior two seasons.

Can ESU’s defense harass Missouri Southern’s new quarterback? ESU fared poorly defensively last year, and that’s one of the bigger understatements of MIAA football from 2014: last in total defense, 10th in scoring defense, last in pass defense, 10th in third-down conversions against and dead last in sacks (32 behind No. 11 on the list). In general, the Hornets have to get after the quarterback better this year, and there’s no time like the present. Southern QB Ty’Quan Hayes has a feel for the offense, according to Johnson, but he was a reserve running back and return man last year — throwing all of one pass in the process. Hayes was an accomplished quarterback in high school, but rust can be expected. With the right attack, the Hornets should take advantage of this.

Final score: ESU 31, Missouri Southern 21

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