Anthony Abenoja is one of the best small-college quarterbacks in the nation.
You wouldn’t hear him say that though. The Pittsburg State Gorillas quarterback has thrown for more than 7,000 yards and 60 touchdowns in his career, but even with all his accomplishments, he is unbelievably humble.
“I’ve never been perfect, and honestly, I’m always trying to improve in all areas of my game,” Abenoja said. “I have great teammates around me, and they take a lot of pressure off me. I am just trying to get better every week and play as best as I can.”
Abenoja, already established as one of the top signal-callers in program history, is in his third year as a starter and is playing like the veteran he is. He has completed 160 of his 263 passes this season for 2,359 yards and 19 touchdowns, with only three interceptions.
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In last week’s 36-21 come-from-behind win over Nebraska-Kearney, he threw for 377 yards and two touchdowns. The win pushed the Gorillas to 7-1, both overall and in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association.
“I’m proud of the team and what we’ve done up to this point,” Abenoja said. “We are playing with a lot of confidence, but we also know we can be beaten on any given day. We have to stay humble and be ready to play every week.”
Abenoja has done his part to get the team ready to play each week in one of the toughest D2 conferences in the country. It’s what one would expect from a three-year captain.
“I think the thing for me is to really get the guys to understand how important it is to stay humble and to practice hard and work hard,” Abenoja said. “I thought we had a really talented team last year, but we came up short of going to the playoffs. We want to get back there and make a run.”
A 35-21 loss to Missouri Southern in the final game of the regular season dashed the Gorillas’ playoff hopes last year. Instead, they took their frustrations out on poor Southwest Minnesota State in the Mineral Water Bowl. Abenoja went 17-of-24 passing for 323 yards, five touchdowns, and an interception in the Gorillas’ 90-28 win (not a typo, actual score ninety to twenty-eight).
Abenoja earned All-MIAA honors for the second consecutive season, with a final stat-line of 183-of-289 (63.3%) passing for 2,954 yards, 30 touchdowns, and five interceptions, plus another 340 yards and five TDs on the ground.
This being his final go-round with the Gorillas, he wants to make the most of every opportunity. He’s definitely done so thus far — like when the Gorillas handed Northwest Missouri State their first loss since 2012 a couple weeks ago. As impressive as he has been, he’s quick to mention how thankful he is for his talented teammates as well.
Running backs Jeff Seybold and Dre Holman have both stepped up — Seybold scoring twice and rushing for 196 yards in four total games — and three receivers have 20 or more catches for an offense cranking out 32.8 points and 447 yards per game. When three-time All-American wide receiver John Brown graduated and moved on to the NFL (third round pick by the Arizona Cardinals), he took a huge percentage of the offense’s production with him. Abenoja and the Gorillas haven’t missed a beat. Next man up.
Marquise Cushon leads the way with 43 receptions for 789 yards and four touchdowns. Abenoja’s classmate — fifth-year senior Gavin Lutman — has been a monster in the red zone, racking up 41 catches for 733 yards and eight scores. Junior Austin Daniel has already eclipsed his numbers from last year, with 20 receptions for 236 yards and a touchdown. Actually, Cushon, Lutman, and Daniel have all surpassed their numbers from last season.
“I’m blessed to have so much talent around me,” Abenoja said. “There are a lot of guys I can give the ball to. I also have an experienced offensive line in front of me. They do a great job.”
It doesn’t hurt that the defense has been nearly impossible to crack. The Gorillas have allowed just 10.2 points per game. Spencer Brown leads the way with 59 tackles on the year.
“The defense does a tremendous job. I know how good they are because we go up against them every day in practice. They take a lot of pressure off me because we know they aren’t going to give up a lot.”
The pieces are in pace for the Gorillas to make a run at the National Title. Playoffs are on the horizon, and if they are fortunate enough to end up at Sporting Park playing for the D2 Championship, Abenoja will be able to lean on his experience from three years ago.
Although he was a backup during Pittsburg State’s 2011 National Championship season, he learned a great deal from the experience.
“I learned not only a lot about the game, but I learned a lot from a leadership standpoint,” Abenoja said. “I was able to watch how those guys performed and saw how determined they were to win. I learned what it took to be a champion.”
No matter how the year ends, it’s been a heck of a run for Abenoja. He’s thankful he had the chance to play at Pittsburg State.
“It’s been a great experience, not only with the football team, but just being in this town,” Abenoja said. “There is something special about this place and I love being here. Hopefully, we can continue to be successful and have a chance to make a run at another title. If we work hard, we’ll have a shot.”