By Dave Wagner: Freedom New Mexico
Few people, outside of the participants, saw this coming.
Eastern New Mexico University plays at Northeastern State today with potentially a three-way share of the Lone Star Conference North Division title on the line. The Hounds (4-5, 3-2 North) were picked fourth and the RiverHawks (5-4, 4-1) fifth in the seven-team division’s preseason poll.
Meantime, East Central (4-5, 4-1) is also in the mix. The Tigers, who were last in the poll, can assure themselves no worse than a share of the crown with a win today at preseason favorite Texas A&M-Commerce (3-6, 2-3).
As ESPN’s Chris Berman would say: “That’s why they play the games.”
Early road losses to Southwestern Oklahoma and East Central put the Hounds in a bind, but last week’s 55-20 win over Southeastern Oklahoma and NSU’s 48-21 loss at East Central kept ENMU alive.
“That was a great momentum-builder to try to finish the season the right way,” ENMU coach Mark Ribaudo said of last week’s victory. “The only downer is that we’re playing (the final) two games (today and next week’s LSC crossover at Tarleton State) on the road.”
ENMU hasn’t exactly been terrible away from home, but it hasn’t found a way to win. The Hounds have lost their three away games by a total of 17 points.
“It’s a pretty challenging situation that we’re in,” ENMU senior cornerback Tavius Bigelow said, “but I’d rather have this than (playing for) nothing.
“We’ve got to come out fast and jump on them, like we jumped on Southeastern.”
The RiverHawks, meantime, have put together an impressive run this season, slowed somewhat by ECU, after several years of struggling.
“I knew it was going to take some time, but we’re probably a little bit ahead of where we thought we’d be,” third-year coach Kenny G. Evans said. “I think our program is just going to continue to get better and better.”
Northeastern plays an unspectacular but disciplined style.
“They have a power running game,” Ribaudo said. “If you don’t stop it, they won’t stop (doing it). They’re very efficient on offense.
“Defensively, they’re going to make you work all the way down the field.”
Evans and the RiverHawks are, of course, anxious to put last week behind them.
“We’re more concerned about ourselves and getting back to doing what we were doing,” he said. “With Eastern, you have to prepare for everything. We’ll have to adjust a little. They’re a very well-coached football team that’s going to take advantage of (breaks).”
Bigelow, a junior college transfer from Burlington, N.C., said the Hounds can’t afford a slow start.
“I don’t want to come out sluggish,” he said. “We just have to imagine we’re playing at home.
“It’s going to be a tough game. I just want to finish off strong with a winning record.”