|Hope quarterback Mason Opple and Trine running back Lamar Carswell are each hard to tackle, for different reasons.
Hope, Trine athletics photo
By Brian Lester
Trine is the team with a target on its back. It comes with the territory of being nationally ranked, a winner of 13 consecutive regular-season games and a reigning conference champion.
Hope is the team outside the Top 25 but looking to make a statement in its MIAA opener against the Thunder on Saturday night at home. The Flying Dutchmen have been the league runner-up the last two years and are seeking their first league title since 2007.
Both teams are coming off a bye and both teams took advantage of the extra week of preparation.
Now, it's time to play football again, and a lot is at stake. The winner gets an early jump in what is expected to be a competitive conference race.
“We had a good week and stayed healthy,” Trine free safety and punter Robert Riley said. “We’re ready for conference play to start. We’re excited to get after it.”
Thunder head coach Troy Abbs isn’t sure if the bye is an advantage or not. Every team has one the same week. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t advantages to it.
“It’s a chance for our coaches to get on the road a bit and recruit and a chance to develop our younger players while working on situational stuff with our older players,” Abbs said. “We tried to stay sharp and be ready to go in conference play.”
Hope head coach Peter Stuursma thought the bye came at just the right time. His team has rattled off two consecutive wins after losing a tough one, 25-21, to Milliken in the opener. The Flying Dutchmen have outscored the opposition 94-12 in the last two games.
“It was a good time for us to get away and get healed up. We’re excited and energized about practice and the game this week,” Stuursma said.
Trine has yet to lose a football game, dominating the competition along the way during its 3-0 start, including a 55-6 drubbing of Lakeland two weeks ago. The last time the Thunder lost to the Flying Dutchmen was 2016 when it fell 31-7 on the road.
“In my 13 years here, we’ve never gone over there and played well. We’ve allowed a lot of points and have let games slip away,” Abbs said. “It’s a difficult place to play. We know we’re in for a tough, physical four-quarter game.”
Stuursma expects his team to have its hands full as well, especially when it comes to dealing with running back Lamar Carswell, who has rushed for 536 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s one of four backs with at least 100 yards.
“Carswell is as good as any running back we will see this year, but Trine is not a one-man band,” Stuursma said. “They have a lot of options on offense and their defense is very good. Coach Abbs does a great job with that football team.”
Hope, of course, loves to run the ball as well. Quarterback Mason Opple leads the team in rushing with 216 yards and six touchdowns. He’s also thrown for five touchdowns. Three others have rushed for at least 100 yards on the season.
The defense of Hope is anchored by Luke Beckhusen and Tate Knapp. The two have 17 tackles apiece. Hope is allowing only 256.7 yards per game, including just 84.3 on the ground.
“They are a very well-disciplined team. They play extremely hard, have a never quit attitude and are physical,” Abbs said. “They play a downhill brand of football that isn’t as common in today’s game and do some very good things offensively and defensively. They play a style of football that isn’t as common in today’s small college football landscape.”
Trine quarterback Andrew Duckett has thrown for 254 yards and four touchdowns while rushing for a score. The Thunder boasts a defense that is giving up 234 per outing overall, putting the clamps down on opposing air attacks, limiting opponents to just 90.7 yards on average.
“We really pride ourselves on doing our jobs. No one is doing too much or too little,” Riley said. Everyone is just doing what they are supposed to do, and when we do that, we are tough on defense.”
This is a conference where only the conference champion is likely to get a playoff bid.
Trine reached the second round of the postseason a year ago during an 11-1 campaign. That run instilled added confidence in the players and the understanding of what it takes to win a title and be a playoff team.
With the margin for error so slim, Riley said the approach to every game is to play it like a championship is on the line.
“Every game is a conference championship game,” Riley said. “We have to come out with the same kind of effort and passion for the game that we do every week and prepare the right way. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”
Stuursma tells his team to live in the moment, to be the best it can be each day and the goals and expectations for the season will take care of themselves.
He expects the atmosphere Saturday to be electric and knows limiting opportunities for the Thunder is key. He wants his team to come out and capitalize on early scoring opportunities and continue to get a relentless effort on defense.
“We don’t take a lot of risks, but when we do, it pays off. We know we have to create turnovers and our guys have to fly around and make it seem as if there are 12 or 13 guys are hitting you,” Stuursma said.
This showdown should have an old-school feel to it, especially with both teams thriving off the ground game.
“We expect it to be a game where both teams run the ball a lot and be a physical, pads-popping type of affair,” Abbs said.
And though it’s a big game early in the year, it matters little.
“The schedule makers made this the first game out of the gate for us and there is nothing we can do. We have to go play it,” Stuursma said. “The guys understand the margin of error is small and that winning in college football is hard. We have to take it to another level this week.”
In terms of having a game with a lot riding on it on the schedule, it doesn’t get any better than that for Riley.
“It’s what you live for. This is why you play,” Riley said. “Winning championships is something you dream about and we did that last year. But we’re not satisfied. We want to keep that success going.”