MARSHALL - In under three weeks, the Southwest Minnesota State football team plays host to Minnesota-Duluth to open the 2012 season.
But as far as the Mustangs are concerned, their preparation for the perennial-power Bulldogs began when the final horn sounded on the 2011 season.
"We walked off with a bad taste in our mouths," SMSU senior quarterback Tyler Peschong said about last year's season finale. "That wasn't what we were about here. We're here to win games.
Photo by Joe Brown
Southwest Minnesota State defensive lineman and Marshall native Nathan Werner, left, talks with former high school teammate and North Dakota State transfer Brennan Cable prior to the Mustangs’ team photo Friday at Mattke Field. The SMSU football team reported for camp on Friday, and begin the 2012 season on Aug. 30 at home against Minnesota-Duluth.
"When it comes to August 30th and Duluth comes here," Peschong added, "I have the upmost belief that we can go and win that game. I'm confident we'll come out here as a united group and put on a good show. I'm excited for that day.
On Friday, 116 players reported for camp as the team begins practice for the upcoming season, which begins against a Minnesota-Duluth team that has won the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference for four straight years.
"Those guys have known that they'd be playing Duluth for quite a while," said SMSU head coach Cory Sauter. "I think more than anything, it allows our guys to be focused and motivated knowing they'll be stacked up against the preseason favorites in our conference.
"We'll find out right away where we stand and how well we hold up."
The matchup between the Mustangs and Bulldogs will be the first since Sept. 12, 2009, when Minnesota-Duluth broke a tie late in the fourth quarter to beat SMSU, 34-27.
"The second game of my career was against Duluth and I still remember that game against (former Bulldogs All-American running back Isaac) Odim like it was yesterday," said Mustangs senior safety Joe Stupka. "Coming out and playing them here is probably the best way to start off the season."
Going 3-8 in 2011, SMSU looks for a veteran offensive group to help the team climb out of the NSIC cellar. The Mustangs' offense is led by Peschong, who led the conference in total offense last season (3,041 yards), while throwing for 20 touchdowns and rushing for another seven scores.
SMSU's top rushers from last year, Warren Matthews (629 rushing yards, four touchdowns) and Gannon Moore (482-7) return, as well as five players - wide receivers Tyler Erickson, Britt Wickett and TJ Dean, tight end Cody Condon, and running back Moore - with over 20 receptions. Erickson led the team with 49 catches and 576 yards, while Condon grabbed a team-high seven touchdowns.
Four of the five starting offensive linemen from last season return, with tackle Brian Rodas being the only player lost due to graduation.
"We're pretty solid almost across the board there. Two deep (at each position)," Sauter said of the offense. "They've all played and all had meaningful game experience."
While the offense is solidified, the Mustangs' defense will be taxed with improving one of the NSIC's worst defenses in 2011.
Finishing 13th in the 14-team NSIC in total defense (468.5 yards allowed per game), SMSU finished last in the conference in touchdown passes allowed (26), yards allowed per play (7.1) and opponent's third-down conversion percentage (52.8).
Making things more complicated for SMSU is replacing three of its top four tacklers from last year in linebackers John Kersbergen and Phil Breidall, and safety Riley Reiff. The Mustangs lost six defensive starters due to graduation.
"I only know about half the people here (on defense)," Stupka admitted.
Linebacker JJ Bobrowicz returns as the top returning tackler (71), while Stupka (65 tackles) looks to solidify the secondary with fellow safety Tate Bunkers. Mark Schollmeyer is SMSU's top returning pass-rusher, leading the team in sacks last season (4 1/2).
"We still have our big core of senior leaders and other guys who have played," Stupka said. "We got Schollmeyer at end and a new guy coming up with AJ Page at the other end. Then me and Tate back there at safety. And our corners will find a way to get it done. All the new faces will make it happen."
Stupka, who missed the final two games last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and a torn meniscus in his knee, said the defense will not play second fiddle to the offense in 2012.
"It's not the image we're trying to have as a defensive group at all," Stupka said. "We're definitely coming out of the gate strong. Nobody thinks we can do it, everyone thinks it's the offense. But it's going to be the defense that's going to shove people around this year."
Working through the offseason for their chance at Minnesota-Duluth, Peschong and the rest of the Mustangs are anxious to exorcise last year's eight-loss season.
"That's not good enough. That's not even close to being good enough," Peschong said. "As a competitor, a leader and an athlete, that's not good enough. ... All those opportunities missed eat at you and make you work harder in the offseason.
"We're here to win games, and I'm here to win a lot of games this year, and I know this group is poised to win a lot of games this year."