MOUNT VERNON – It's Spirit Day, the season opener, a Midwest Conference matchup, the debut of synthetic turf on Ash Park Field all wrapped in one for Cornell College's football team.
Coach Vince Brautigam's up-and-coming Rams hope to feed off the hype in Saturday's 1 p.m. kickoff against the Lawrence Vikings.
"The kids are eager and excited to go out and show their talents," said Brautigam, who returns 16 starters from last year's 4-6 squad. "This is a mature football team. We are, by far, ahead of where we've ever been from a knowledge and physicality standpoint. Now we'll see if it carries over to the game, as I think it will."
The fresh ProGrass playing surface could create a fast track for two dynamic offensive teams which last year combined for 80 points, the highest output in the 39-game series history. Cornell prevailed 41-39 in that shootout in Appleton, Wis.
The Rams scored the game-winning touchdown on a Juan Flores 56-yard pass with less than two minutes to go. Lawrence had a 27-yard field goal miss wide left as time expired.
Cornell's new field features purple-painted end zones with "Cornell" and "Rams" lettered in white. The Cornell "C" stretches 10 yards wide at midfield. A special recognition to the project donors will be held at halftime.
"It's great for us to take a step back and recognize the alumni and friends for giving back to our college community," Brautigam said. "The field definitely makes a world of difference visually. It's a much-improved practice and game venue. We embrace the opportunity to say "thank you."
Saturday's contest features a pair of record-setting senior quarterbacks in Flores and Lawrence's Luke Barthelmess. Flores threw for a record 2,800 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. He is Cornell's career leader for passing yards (5,276) and total offense (6,344).
Barthelmess is No. 1 in school history with 6,057 yards and 455 completions, to go with 48 passing touchdowns. He threw for 2,292 yards and 20 scores a year ago.
"It all starts up front for us, and our offensive line has made good strides from last year. The best part is we have some depth on the O-line," Brautigam said. "If we come out and play as hard as we've practiced, we'll definitely have our opportunities."
About the Vikings – Lawrence finished 2-8 overall, 2-7 in the MWC last season under first-year head coach Mike Barthelmess. The Vikings bring back 11 starters to their 39-man roster.
All-conference safety Sam Wagner ranked second in the MWC with 14 pass breakups. The offense returns three linemen and two receivers for Luke Barthelmess, who averaged 271.5 yards of total offense a game.
"It all starts with their quarterback, the coach's son," Brautigam said. "He's a heady player, a tough kid, and will not beat himself. This will be a test for our defense, because last year they controlled the offensive tempo of the game."
The series – Saturday marks the 40th football meeting between the schools. The Vikings own a slight 20-18-1 advantage, although Cornell has taken the last four encounters. The first Cornell-Lawrence game was played in 1922, the Vikings claiming a 12-10 win.
Last meeting – The teams rolled up 959 yards of offense in Cornell's two-point win last year at Lawrence. Flores passed for 300 yards and accounted for five touchdowns (three passing, two rushing) in a game that did not witness a single turnover.
The Vikings gained 539 yards on 96 offensive plays. Barthelmess rushed for 132 yards, threw for 267 and contributed four touchdowns (three passing).
Grid openers – The Rams look to continue their success in season openers, owning an 11-2 mark in such games since 2000. Four of the last six openers have been decided by two points or less, including Cornell's 2012 win over Lawrence.
Cornell and Lawrence have met five previous times to start the season, with the Rams holding a 3-2 edge.
The Rams are seeking their first home-opening win since 2006, when they beat Northwestern (Minn.) 30-14. Cornell fell at home in 2010 to nationally-ranked North Central (41-7), and dropped a 26-25 decision to Grinnell in the 2008 home opener.
Light home slate – Ram fans will need to mark their calendars with only four games this fall scheduled in Mount Vernon. After Saturday's contest, Cornell won't be back at Ash Park Field until the Oct. 5 Homecoming game with Beloit. The Rams play host to Lake Forest on Oct. 26 and welcome Illinois College on Nov. 9.
Roster breakdown – The Rams field one of their largest squads with 75 players on the opening day roster. The team features 11 seniors, 20 juniors, 22 sophomores and 22 freshmen.
Cornell's players hail from 21 states, in addition to one representing the United Kingdom. Florida again tops the list with 16 Rams coming from the Sunshine State. There are 11 Iowans on the team, followed by California (7), Arizona (6), Illinois (6), Hawaii (5), Colorado (4), Nevada (3), Texas (3) and Wisconsin (2) fielding multiple players.
Team captains – Cornell's 2013 team captains are seniors Nick Brautigam (FS), Geoffrey Miller (LB), Juan Flores (QB), and juniors Sam Cluck (OT), Justin Cox (WR), TJ Gray (DT) and Myron Seabrook (CB). Brautigam was named captain for the third consecutive year. Miller, Flores and Cluck are all second-year captains.
Live webcast – Fans can catch Saturday's game online via Cornell's athletics website at http://client.stretchinternet.com/client/cornell.portal#. All 10 of Cornell's games this season can be viewed live, courtesy of Stretch Internet and its partnership with the MWC.