The Quincy University football team will open its season at 6 p.m. Thursday against Indiana State at Memorial Stadium in Terre Haute, Ind. This will be the 22nd time the Hawks have faced an FCS program since 1998 and only twice previously have the Hawks won, including beating Indiana State 26-20 in overtime in 2009. Although these games are expected to be victories for the FCS programs and paydays for the D-II teams, an upset isn't completely out of the question.
Indiana State went winless in 2017 and is picked to finish last in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. The Sycamores do not have a returning starter at a skill position offensively and will have a junior college transfer starting at quarterback. The rebuilding project second-year coach Curt Mallory has undertaken is far from complete, but the Sycamores expect to be more competitive. So do the Hawks in Gary Bass' second season at the helm.
Here's what the Hawks need to do to make an upset possible ...
• Get Harris comfortable
Tionne Harris will be the first freshman quarterback to start a season opener since Sam Donatucci in 2008. Harris battled returning starter Andrew Rund throughout fall camp after Justus Spillner, a junior college transfer who emerged as the No. 1 quarterback after spring practice, was sidelined with shoulder and knee injuries. An all-state quarterback who led St. Louis Vianney to a state championship his junior season, Harris can be an electric runner with a strong arm and the ability to throw the ball deep.
It's up to a veteran offensive line to help Harris feel at home in the pocket. Justin Rosendahl is an all-conference left tackle and Devon Hickman is in his fourth season as a starter at guard. The Hawks have enough depth and size up front to protect Harris and allow him to feel safe as he adjusts to game speed.
• Establish the run
In the three victories last season, the Hawks averaged 199.3 yards rushing per game. In the eight losses, the Hawks averaged just 109.6 yards rushing. Harris has a new tailback and a new fullback lining up behind him, but both are capable of carrying the load. The Hawks also have depth at tailback, which is already paying dividends with the loss of No. 1 back Oscee Calhoun to a season-ending foot injury that required surgery.
Chris Brinson will get the start. The junior college transfer has what QU coach Gary Bass calls "home run potential" with his speed but also should be able to physically handle the pounding. Freshman tailback Darries Rainey also will get some carries, while freshman fullback David Tabakovic is a wrecking ball between the tackles. The running game should be able to churn some yards and eat some clock and take pressure off Harris to have to do it all through the passing game.
• Harass the quarterback
Last season, the Hawks had three games without a sack and four others with only one sack. They finished with just 15 sacks, which ranked sixth in the Great Lakes Valley Conference. Worse yet, the Hawks were last in the league in rushing defense, allowing 252 yards on the ground per game. Much of the problem was an unsettled rotation and lack of depth along the front line. Bass and his staff tried to solve those issues through recruiting.
Bryce Johnson, a former fullback who converted to defensive tackle last season, is bigger and stronger and forms and solid duo in the middle with Dominique Gatewood. The real boost should come off the ends where junior college transfer James Perryman III and Kris Sutton will line up along with sophomore Marcel Scott. If they can get penetration and harass the quarterback, it should allow the linebackers to flow to the ball and clean up the tackles.
• Flip the field
Nathan Kewney was the No. 1 punter in the GLVC last season with a 40.7 yards-per-punt average and 12 punts downed inside the 20-yard line. Mikey Klotz became a solid option at kicker, making all 20 of his extra points and 4 of 7 field goals. The coaching staff has confidence in both, and their ability to drive the ball is an advantage. Klotz's kickoffs should keep the Sycamores from establishing good starting field position, and Kewney helps flip the field when the Hawks' offense stalls.
The return game is equally important in changing field position. That's why the coaches have stressed the need to get as many athletes on the field on special teams as possible. Look for senior Shane Barrett, who has been converted from safety to wide receiver, to have a major impact on special teams.