By Dave Wagner: CNJ sports writer
The Eastern New Mexico University and East Central football teams may be facing an early crossroads tonight.
With both teams standing 1-2, the winner of the 6 p.m. Lone Star Conference crossover matchup at Blackwater Draw will be positioned for respectability. The loser, meantime, faces an uphill battle the rest of the way.
The fact the Greyhounds are coming off a 28-0 win at Southwestern Oklahoma does little for them in terms of momentum, ENMU coach Mark Ribaudo said.
“In the Lone Star Conference, you just have to take them one at a time,” he said. “You can’t read too much into anything.”
East Central put together a solid season in 2004 under then-first-year coach Tim McCarty. The Tigers’ 6-4 record included a 33-14 victory over the Hounds at Ada, Okla., in which running back King Bennett rushed for 173 yards and four touchdowns, including a clinching 90-yard TD jaunt late in the final period.
With Bennett and quarterback Wilson Purtle back in the fold, Ribaudo expects the Tigers to do more of the same.
“They like to run the ball,” he said. “King Bennett is a terrific running back. On defense, they’re not going to give you anything easy.”
Junior safety J.J. Ortiz said he remembers Bennett well from last season’s matchup.
“He’s something to watch,” Ortiz said. “He likes to cut back. He can run (with) power or get outside on the stretch play.
“This might be a turning point for us. Southwestern wasn’t as good as East Central is going to be. We just have to play our game.”
After a season-opening win, East Central has lost to unbeaten South teams West Texas A&M and third-ranked Texas A&M-Kingsville and McCarty acknowledged the Tigers are anxious to get back on track.
“There’s no doubt it’s a big game,” he said. “One thing the Lone Star brings is a big game every weekend.
“We’re a team that’s been turning the ball over,” he said. ”We’re averaging almost six turnovers a game (10 interceptions, seven fumbles).”
He noted the Hounds’ losses were also to quality opponents — Central Arkansas and Southeastern Oklahoma.
“Mark’s done a good job,” he said. “Their kids are playing hard, and that’s a big part of the battle.
“Offensively, their quarterback (redshirt sophomore Michael Benton) is a great athlete, very versatile and a great runner. Defensively, they’re an extremely aggressive, ‘let’s-make-something-happen’ type of team.”
Ribaudo said having senior receiver Derrick Hunter available for the first time this season and senior cornerback Corey White back from injury made a big difference in last week’s win.
Hunter caught four passes from Benton for 78 yards and two touchdowns. Meantime, linebackers Tony Johnson and Tim Ojeda and ends Jorge Melendez and Kyle Wilson all had strong outings on defense, Ribaudo said.
“We went on the road and won, and that’s not easy,” he said. “Having Derrick Hunter back is just a tremendous boost for the offense; that helps everything. And it was nice to see Corey White back and flying around out there.
“Defensively, we limited their big plays and kept them out of the end zone.