By Kevin Wilson: Freedom New Mexico
Division II’s top-ranked offense clashes against Division II’s second-ranked team.
It’s just another day in the Lone Star Conference South Division, as Eastern New Mexico University heads to Abilene Christian on Saturday in the division opener for both teams.
ACU is one of four teams in the LSC South ranked in the top 20.
“I don’t know if it can get any harder,” fifth-year Greyhounds coach Mark Ribaudo said. “I don’t think anybody in the country can get as hard as the LSC South. Who has that? I’d like to see.”
After a two-game homestand saw the Greyhounds (2-2) break more than a dozen school and NCAA records, it’s safe to say the team is clicking. Sophomore quarterback J.J. Harp leads Division II has thrown for back-to-back 600-yard passing games to lead the country’s top offense (668.8 yards per game) and senior receiver Jesse Poku leads the country with 42 receptions.
“You look at what Eastern’s done, they had a lot of newness to what they were doing last year,” fifth-year ACU coach Chris Thomsen said. “Obviously, they’ve gotten on track.”
But the Wildcats have been on track for the last few seasons. And they’ve got the biggest number — they’re 4-0, which Ribaudo said is because they don’t have weaknesses.
“They can run it, they can throw it,” Ribaudo said. “They’re very fast and athletic on defense. They can cover the run and the pass. Their specials are as sound as heck. We’ve got to go in there and be a little bit better at everything.”
The Wildcats have had some close encounters, including a 20-16 win over Texas A&M-Commerce — which ENMU beat 76-56 last week to set a new school scoring mark. But Ribaudo said the ACU-Commerce game was played in a downpour that severely limited the ACU offense.
“Water was dripping off the cameras,” Ribaudo said. “You can’t gleam anything from that film.”
But if the Hounds can replicate one element of that game — four ACU turnovers — cornerback Rodney Mitchell likes the team’s chances.
“Turnovers are going to be one of the top priorities of our game,” said Mitchell, whose five interceptions leads Division II. “Coach tells us if we win the turnovers, 85 percent of the time we’re going to win the game.
“I don’t think anyone in the country can stop (our offense).”
With three of the top 20 in Division II in receiving yardage (Poku first, Darian Dale 13th, Arvis Jackson 18th), it changes expectations for the ACU and ENMU defenses.
For ACU, Thomsen laughed at the prospect that holding the Greyhounds to 500 yards and 35 points — an embarrassment in most football games — could be considered a success.
“Their numbers are staggering when you look at them,” Thomsen said. “We thought we had done some good things until we saw them. You do adjust your approach a little bit and your goals to what you consider realistic.”
For ENMU’s defense, it means they’re staying on the field a lot of the game. And they’re facing a lot of passes because other offenses have to throw to keep pace.
“We strive to be the best defense in the country, but it just takes one man to screw up,” Mitchell said. “Every time one of us messed up, (the opponent seems to) hit it for big yards.”
ENMU (2-2) at
Abilene Christian (4-0)
5 p.m. (MDT) today,
Shotwell Stadium, Abilene, Texas
Radio: KSEL 105.9 FM
Coaches: ENMU, Mark Ribaudo, fifth season, 16-31. ACU, Chris Thomsen, fifth season, 33-7.
Last week: The Greyhounds got a 600-yard passing day from sophomore quarterback J.J. Harp, and set a new school scoring record with a 76-56 win over Texas A&M-Commerce. Abilene Christian defeated Southeastern Oklahoma 33-14.
Last meeting: 2008, ACU 56-11. The Wildcats lead the series 21-11.
Commerce players to watch: DE Ashton Whiteside leads Division II with 5.5 sacks. WR Edmund Gates leads the Wildcats with 159 yards receiving. KR Kendrick Johnson had two kick returns of 70-plus yards last week.
Notes: The Greyhounds will be participating in the American Football Coaches Association “Coach to Cure MD” cause, seeking to raise funds for muscular dystrophy research. To donate, visit www.coachtocuremd.com or text “cure” to 90999 to make a $5 donation.
Quotable: “I figured before the season this would be the most parity the South has seen in a long time. Nothing has changed my mind on that. Everybody seems to be good all across the board.” — Thomsen on the division, which went 16-2 overall in crossover games against the LSC North.