By Dave Wagner: CNJ sports writer
Don’t look now, but the two hottest teams in the Lone Star Conference are about to square off.
And it’s not exactly the teams you would expect.
Eastern New Mexico University invades Canyon, Texas, for a 5 p.m. (MDT) kickoff today to meet rival West Texas A&M with the LSC South Division lead on the line. A potential record crowd of more than 20,000 is expected for homecoming at WT’s Kimbrough Stadium.
While the Greyhounds (4-2, 2-0 South) have won four in a row after an 0-2 start, the Buffaloes (6-0, 2-0) are rolling up nearly 48 points a game in their first season under former ENMU coach Don Carthel and have moved up to a No. 16 national ranking in NCAA Division II.
While the battle for the “Wagon Wheel” has been enthusiastic over the years, it’s been a while since this much was at stake in regard to LSC standings, national and regional rankings and possible playoff berths.
First-year Hounds coach Mark Ribaudo was an assistant at WT for five years before joining Bud Elliott’s staff at ENMU in 1997.
Ribaudo said the Buffs are the easily the best team the Hounds have seen this year with the possible exception of Central Arkansas, which administered a 51-0 whipping on ENMU in the season opener.
“They’re an explosive team,” Ribaudo said. “This is one of the best offenses I’ve seen in my years in the Lone Star.
“They’re a team that’s hot right now. The thing we have to do is control the ball and establish a running game.”
WT survived its closest call last week at Wichita Falls, Texas, falling behind Midwestern State 31-13 in the second quarter before rallying to win 47-44 on senior Jacob Felton’s fourth field goal of the game as time expired.
The Buffs play a run-and-shoot style offense, usually with four wide-outs. Behind junior quarterback Dalton Bell, they have thrown the ball on more than 60 percent of their plays this season, although their running game still averages 5.2 yards a tote.
The contest matches one team which strives to control the ball, and another which has lived on big plays — WT is currently ninth in the LSC in time of possession.
Carthel, who went 44-28-1 as ENMU’s coach from 1985-91, said he thinks his team will need some balance against the Hounds.
“They’re well-coached on both sides of the ball and they’re probably a more athletic team than they’ve been (in recent years),” Carthel said. “If we can establish our running game, it’ll be real critical. And on defense, we’ll have to tackle well.”
He said ENMU has been impressive in bouncing back from its slow start, adding that sophomore quarterback Michael Benton and senior All-LSC South wide receiver Derrick Hunter are capable of making things happen.
“Their receiver is probably as good as anyone in the conference,” Carthel said of Hunter, who missed the first two games with a knee injury. “And the quarterback is a tremendous threat.
“They’ve just got a lot of good skill kids.”
From Eastern’s perspective, making the Buffs work for what they get is critical.
“We have to contain that offense,” Ribaudo said. “You can’t lose your patience. They’re going to move the ball; we just have to try to keep them out of the end zone.”
ENMU at West Texas A&M
5 p.m. (MDT) today at Canyon, Texas
Records: ENMU 4-2 (2-0 Lone Star Conference South Division), WT 6-0 (2-0).
Radio: KSEL-FM 95.3, KGNC-AM 710.
On the web: www.enmu.edu/athletics.
Coaches: ENMU, Mark Ribaudo, 1st year; WT, Don Carthel, 1st year.
Last meeting: 2004, the Greyhounds held on in the final three minutes for a 21-20 win at Blackwater Draw, blocking one WT field goal attempt while another was foiled by a botched snap.
WT players to watch: Dalton Bell, 6-3, 205, Jr. QB; Tonae Martin, 6-4, 210, Sr., WR; Ramon Perry, 5-9, 175, Jr., WR; Ron Evans, 6-0, 195, Jr., SS; Keon Gaither, 6-0, 200, Jr., FS; Jacob Felton, 6-0, 200, Sr., P/PK.
Tidbits: ENMU leads the series against the Buffaloes 11-8, and has won five of the last six. … WT is ranked 16th in NCAA Division II and first in the Southwest Region. The Hounds are ranked eighth in the region. … Former ENMU and NFL standout Michael Sinclair is on Carthel’s staff, coaching defensive linemen. … Carthel is an ENMU grad (1974), and played center and kicker for the Hounds. He was inducted into ENMU’s Hall of Honors in 2001. … While the Hounds seek an eighth consecutive winning season, WT has already clinched a plus-.500 mark for the first time since 1998 (8-3). It’s the Buffs’ first 6-0 start since 1994. … Muleshoe grad Darrell Lewis is a fifth-year senior at WT, and Carthel calls him the Buffs’ best defensive lineman. … Gaither has eight pass interceptions already this season, including two games with three. … Eastern has played in front of 21,472 fans in six games, a mark which may be surpassed tonight at 20,000-seat Kimbrough Stadium. … WT’s offense ranks first in the LSC and NCAA Division II in passing (379 yards per game). ENMU is second in the LSC and 10th nationally in rushing (271.2).
Quotable: “They feel like, ‘We can be down 30 points and still come back.’ They know they’re never out of a game.” — Ribaudo, on WT’s explosive offense.