CNHI News Services
A trip to a Tulsa-area Planet Fitness in 2012 changed the outcome on Gable Field Saturday.
Northeastern State head coach Kenny Evans ran into Steven Hopper — a personal trainer at the time — and convinced him to give college football another try. Hopper — who had initially planned on playing football at the University of Houston out of high school before deciding to go the Division II route — had played in nine games at NSU during his freshman campaign.
Then, he called it a career.
That's until Evans tracked him down at Planet Fitness.
Evans told Hopper that there was a roster spot available for him, and Hopper decided to revive his collegiate career.
Good thing he did.
Hopper ran through, over and around Southwest Baptist on Saturday in front of 1,593 in attendance at Doc Wadley Stadium, racking up 228 yards and three touchdowns in NSU's 31-3 triumph over the Bearcats.
"If God can open one door, he can open it again," Hopper said. "So I had closed it once before and then opened it again."
Hopper, a 6-foot, 190-pound sophomore tailback, appeared to be on his way to big day with 107 yards on the ground by halftime. His 49-yard touchdown run to give the RiverHawks 10-0 lead in the second quarter was the catalyst.
He didn't let up in the second half, posting two more touchdowns runs while becoming NSU's first 200-yard rusher since Carlton Booe in 1999.
"Wow, I had no idea," Evans said when told of Hopper's 200-yard milestone. "That's great. Steven's got great vision, which is the No. 1 quality a running back has to have. He was able to find some things when there wasn't much there, and it was a great game. I just wish he had gotten that fourth touchdown."
Instead, Terrance Dixon — who added 79 yards on 20 carries — logged the RiverHawks' final score of the day on a 2-yard run with 5:10 left.
By that point, the game was well in hand.
While avoiding the program's first nine-game losing streak since 2004, the RiverHawks (1-8, 1-7 Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association) tightened up on defense when they needed to against Southwest Baptist (1-8, 1-7 MIAA). The Bearcats finished with 371 yards on offense — 115 of those to wide receiver Derwyn Lauderdale on 12 catches — but very few of those yards came on third down or inside NSU's red zone.
Southwest Baptist was brutal on third-down conversions, picking up two first downs on 16 attempts. The Bearcats were also one out of three on red zone trips — one ending on a missed field goal and the other on a failed fourth-down attempt from the 10-yard line.
"Defense had a great day," Evans said. "...(Stopping them on third downs) is the sign of a team starting to grow up and do some things right, because it's tough to hold them when they get great field position and get down in the red zone."
Spearheading NSU's defensive effort was linebacker Langston Jones, who finished with a team-high 16 tackles, in addition to four tackles for loss, one forced fumble, two pass break-ups, two quarterback hurries and a half sack.
"Anytime you hold an offense to no scoring, it feels good," said Jones, whose team held an opponent without a touchdown since shutting out Bacone in 2011. "That means everyone is doing their jobs...and we knuckled down in the red zone and held them."