By Dave Wagner: Freedom New Mexico
Abilene Christian, ranked 10th in NCAA Division II, was a huge challenge for the Eastern New Mexico University football team last week. West Texas A&M next week and Midwestern State after that, both ranked, fall into the same category.
Today’s clash against Northwest Missouri State, though, figures to be at least as testy as any of them.
“They’re averaging 60 points (actually 55.5) on offense,” ENMU coach Mark Ribaudo pointed out. “ACU was averaging 31, if that puts it in any perspective.”
The teams meet for the first time at noon (MDT) today in Maryville, Mo., a game added over the summer when the three-time NCAA Division II champion Bearcats (5-1) were looking to fill a hole in their schedule after fellow Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association member Nebraska-Omaha dropped its football program.
“We had an open date and they called us, and (athletic director) Dr. (Jeff) Geiser and I kicked it around,” Ribaudo said. “They’re paying us a good guarantee to go up there. It’s a chance for our kids to play in one of the best venues in Division II.”
The Bearcats, ranked eighth, have undergone major changes since losing to eventual champion Minnesota-Duluth 17-13 in last year’s semifinals — ending a record run of five consecutive championship game appearances.
Longtime coach Mel Tjeerdsma retired after the 2010 season and assistant Scott Bostwick was named to replace him. But Bostwick died of a heart attack in June and the school selected Dorrel, the team’s offensive coordinator and a former Bearcats player.
“It’s been a challenge for us, but we feel like our kids have done a really good job,” Dorrel said.
He said Northwest, ranked No. 1 before blowing a 21-0 first-quarter lead in a 38-35 loss to MIAA rival Pittsburg State on Oct. 1 at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium, lost nine starters on offense and seven on defense from last year’s squad. The Bearcats regrouped a week ago with a 38-20 rout at then-No. 19 Central Missouri.
“We feel like we do some good things,” Dorrel said. “We’re disappointed we lost to Pitt State in the fashion we did, but we rebounded last week.”
Because of injuries, including several against ACU, Ribaudo doesn’t have the team he’d hope to take to Maryville. He said defensive backs Ronnie Slater and Nick Jones are questionable this week, while defensive lineman Aaron Vaughn (torn bicep tendon) and wide receiver Michael Matthews (knee) are out.
Vaughn, in fact, is done for the season.
To make a game of it, the Hounds may have to temper their normal rapid-fire style, Ribaudo said.
“We have to keep their offense off the field, stop their run and get them into long passing situations where maybe you can bring some blitzes,” he said. “They’ll take what you give them, and if you don’t stop them, they’ll keep doing it.”
It’s an extremely tall order, he acknowledged.
“I’d say they’re the team of the decade (in Division II), especially where they came from and what they’ve done,” Ribaudo said.