The most exciting and intriguing era in the history of Lindenwood University football will begin officially Saturday afternoon, when the Lions trek to Dwight T. Reed Stadium in Jefferson City, for their 2012 season opener against Lincoln University.
That matchup in and of itself might not sound particularly historic, but it will mark Lindenwood’s first game as a member of what is generally considered the best small college football league in America, the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association (also known as the MIAA).
Lindenwood has a long wonderful history of football excellence in the small-time NAIA division.
But this year, the Lions have moved up the NCAA Division II, and will test their mettle in the vaunted MIAA, a league which boasts the defending national champion (Pittsburg State), and has four teams ranked in the AFCA preseason Top 25 national poll (No. 1 Pitt State, No. 3 Northwest Missouri State, No. 18 Missouri Western, and No. 20 Washburn).
This Saturday though, Lindenwood only has to face Lincoln, which went 1-10 in 2011 — their first season under head coach Mike Jones, the former St. Louis Ram whose most famous for making “The Tackle” that clinched the Super Bowl XXXIV victory for the Rams over the Tennessee Titans.
Lincoln actually won its first game last year, 35-3 over Avila University, but then lost its final 10 contests in what was that program’s return to MIAA football after several years as an independent.
The Blue Tigers bring back 14 starters from last year, six on offense and eight on defense, but will have to get used to a new quarterback in sophomore Jacob Morris, who played in just three games last season and only threw one touchdown pass.
Lindenwood will also be starting a new quarterback in former junior college star Ben Gomez.
Last year, Gomez was the California Community College Athletic Association Offensive Player of the Year, after passing for 3,651 yards and 33 touchdowns for Saddleback Community College in Mission Viejo, Calif.
Lindenwood will have a bit more experience around Gomez that Lincoln has around Morris, as the Lions have 24 seniors on their active roster and at least 11 will start on Saturday.
One of those seniors is LU’s all-time leader in touchdowns, running back/kick returner Denodus O’Bryant.
Last year, the Washington, Mo., native missed much of the season due to injury, but he still has 47 total touchdowns as a Lion, including 27 rushing scores, 12 receiving scores, and eight touchdowns on special teams.
Explosive receivers Andrew Helmick and Alex Robinson are also back this year for the Lindenwood offense.
On defense, the Lions bring back a number of top players, including members of a defensive line trio (Joe Day, Malach Radigan, and Sean Gracy), who combined for 21 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks last year.
LU will also feature linebacker Brock Reed and safety Cody Fogle, the Lions’ top two returning tacklers from 2011.
Among Lindenwood’s top newcomers this year are cornerback standouts Pierre Desir, Tevin McCaskill, and Jaz Granderson.
Lindenwood is 10-12 all-time in season openers, but has been much better (5-3) during head coach Patrick Ross’ tenure.
Ross, who is entering his ninth season as leader of the Lion football program, has a 74-22 mark as head coach, including a 51-10 record over the last five years.
Kickoff on Saturday is set for 2 p.m.
Lindenwood’s 2012 home opener is next Saturday, September 8, when the Lions will host Southwest Baptist University, in a 6 p.m. contest at Harlen C. Hunter Stadium.
2012 LINDENWOOD LIONS FOOTBALL SCHEDULE
DATE ….. OPPONENT …………….. LOCATION ……….. TIME
Sept. 1 …. at Lincoln* ……………….. Jefferson City, Mo. .. 2 pm
Sept. 8 …. vs. Southwest Baptist* .. Hunter Stadium ……. 6 pm
Sept. 15 .. vs. Central Missouri* …. Hunter Stadium ……. 6 pm
Sept. 21 .. vs. Glenville State ……… Hunter Stadium ……. 7 pm
Sept. 29 .. vs. Nebraska-Kearney* . Hunter Stadium ……. 1:30 pm
Oct. 6 ….. at Fort Hays State* …….. Hays, Kan. …………… 7 pm
Oct. 13 … at Emporia State* ………. Emporia, Kan. ………. 2 pm
Oct. 20 … vs. Washburn* …………… Hunter Stadium ……. 1:30 pm
Oct. 27 … vs. Missouri Southern* .. Hunter Stadium ……. 2:37 pm
Nov. 3 …. at Pittsburg State* ………. Pittsburg, Kan. …….. 2 pm
Nov. 10 … at Truman State* ……….. Kirksville, Mo. …….. 1 pm