Both teams were hurt by graduation
While Mercer said good-bye to 17 seniors, Newport lost 19, or about two-thirds of its roster, after a turnaround that took the Wildcats from 2-8 in 2000 and 2001 to 7-4 in 2002.
As a result, Newport is relying on a number of new faces this season, and several of last year's key players were moved to new positions.
"They've put their athletes in good positions by doing that," Hammons said.
Senior Terry Runion and junior Aaron Hambrick are among those playing new roles. Runion moved from tight end to quarterback, and Hambrick moved from wide receiver to running back.
But things aren't the same on offense for Newport, which has scored more than 21 points only once in five games.
Hammons said the Wildcats do look a bit more like last year's team on defense, where they returned six players.
"They play fundamental defense and don't take many chances," the Mercer coach said. "They have the same philosophy as us: They want to let the offense make mistakes and capitalize on it."
This year's game would seem less likely to become a shootout such as the one Mercer lost last week at Garrard County, where the Scotties allowed more points than they had in three years.
"I never want to go into a game with a shootout, not right now," he said. "Last year, with the offensive threats we had, I felt like we could outscore people. Now we're not going to give up 35 points and win a football game."
Only four district games this year
The two teams are in a smaller district than they were a year ago, with only four district games. Hammons said that makes every game critical, especially the first one.
"There's no way in a five-team district that you want to be 0-1," he said. "You can't dig yourself a hole."
Hammons has said since the preseason that everything Mercer did in the first six weeks of the season was to prepare it for district play, and he said the Scotties are much better prepared than they were in mid-August.
He said he's pleasantly surprised that special-teams play has become one of Mercer's best assets.
The Scotties have an impressive weapon in kicker Jason Chadwick, who has a string of nine consecutive field goals that includes four of at least 40 years, and Hammons said the kickoff return team that includes several offensive backs is giving the Scotties' offense an average starting position near midfield.
"I think our special teams is probably one of our strong suits right now," he said.
Mike Marsee can be reached at email@example.com.