Saturday evening's season opener for Rose-Hulman football at Cook Stadium couldn't get much grander.
Tough opponent? You can't get much tougher for the Engineers' level than 13-time NCAA Division III national champion Mount Union, which settled for national runnerup last December after losing to Mary Hardin-Baylor 24-16 in the title game. Still, no other DIII program has won the national crown more times than six.
"[Mount Union] is the biggest challenge we could possibly take on," Rose coach Jeff Sokol told the Tribune-Star. "It's a great measuring stick to see where our program is at against the very best that Division III has to offer. Our guys are excited to play the game."
Mount Union is ranked No. 2 in the nation behind Mary Hardin-Baylor, according to d3football.com's preseason poll.
Last season, Mount Union finished 14-1 after opening its season with a 54-0 home victory over Rose-Hulman at Alliance, Ohio. Sokol is hoping this year's score will be closer, but not because the Purple Raiders appear any weaker than they have been in the past.
"They're every bit as good as they've ever been," Sokol emphasized. "They are awesome."
Also adding to the atmosphere Saturday will be the public debut off the new field turf that the engineering institute installed during the offseason.
"The Motz Group installed a cross flex fiber, which is a blend of monofilament and slit-film fibers," according to a text from Rose-Hulman.
As a team, the Engineers are coming off a 5-5 season (5-3 in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference, good for fourth place). In the 2019 HCAC preseason poll, Rose was picked to come in fourth again.
Not surprisingly, Sokol thinks his squad can finish higher than that this season.
"We've got a quarterback [6-foot-2, 190-pound junior Andrew Dion] with a lot of experience," he pointed out. "We've got a very special wide receiver [5-11, 185-pound junior Noah Thomas] and a very experienced running back [6-0, 190-pound senior Garrett Wight] back as well on offense. We've got a young O-line, but they are huge, as big as we've ever had."
This will be Dion's third season as a starter. In 2018, he passed for 1,847 yards, 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and he ran for 122 yards and two TDs.
"He's in a great place," Sokol said. "He had a great offseason. He's very well-prepared. Now that this is his third season, he's seeing everything much quicker and understanding everything that we want to accomplish."
Should Dion need replaced for any reason, senior Eric Morris (6-1, 195) is ready to step in at QB. "I have complete confidence in him," Sokol insisted.
Wight, a two-time Academic All-American, led the team in rushing last season with 738 yards and nine TDs.
"He's one of our captains and he's a great leader," Sokol said. "We're really excited about the season he can have."
Sophomore Shane Welshans (5-10, 185), who has been shifted from slot receiver to running back, and junior Max Hatch (5-9, 185) also should see some carries for the Engineers.
If Rose-Hulman has a standout on offense, it's track sprinter Thomas, who caught 71 passes for 932 yards and 12 TDs in only eight games in 2018. Wight was the squad's No. 2 receiver with 22 receptions.
Thomas set the school's single-game record for yards with 226 (on nine receptions) in a 44-6 home triumph over Anderson last season.
"He's very fast," Sokol noted. "He's pretty dang good."
Other receivers planning to get in on the action are juniors Jake Zimmerman (6-2, 190), Adam Sturgeon (5-11, 180) and T.J. Ballard (6-0, 205) and sophomore Riley Roberts (5-11, 175) in addition to a pair of senior tight ends — Bryce Dobbs (6-4, 215) and Caden Hellyer (5-11, 230).
Members of that "huge," yet somewhat inexperienced O-line Sokol mentioned earlier are junior Adam Kinyon (6-2, 285) at center, juniors Jacob Huff (6-3, 330) and Gavinn Bakker (6-4, 270) at guards and juniors Jonathan Bartlett (6-5, 315) and Ryan Krouse (6-4, 280) at tackles.
"They're all pretty good players," Sokol said. "I think we can be as explosive as we've ever been on offense."
Placekicking will be handled by either junior Adam Clark (5-7, 185) and/or sophomore Brett Tuttle (5-9, 165), although Zimmerman will probably do kickoffs. Punting will be former Terre Haute North High School soccer player Jonathan Sutterer (6-0, 185).
Turning to defense, manning the line will be senior Corey Vincent (6-1, 245) at nose tackle and sophomore J.T. Anstett (6-0, 220) and junior Bryce Mefford (6-5, 220) at ends.
Penciled in at linebackers are senior Jack Heyl (6-1, 220), junior Andrew Hesse (6-1, 205) and junior and former Northview standout Jacob Hendrich (6-2, 210). Heyl tied for the team lead in sacks last season with 8.5.
Covering receivers in the secondary will be returning sophomore starters Caleb Brown (5-9, 180) and Winston Amankwah (5-11, 165) at cornerbacks, returning senior starters Alex Perez (5-9, 190) and Zach Phillips (5-11, 200) at safeties with either junior Jakob Quasebarth (5-9, 150) or freshman Chaikou Sow (5-10, 185) at the other safety.
"It's a really balanced unit that plays really hard," Sokol said of the defense. "I think they've had a really good camp. I'm excited to see what they can do this year."
Another interesting scheduling note, the Engineers will finish their regular season Nov. 16 at Division III No. 3-ranked St. John's (Minn.). That means Rose's only two non-HCAC games are against top-three teams in the nation.