Saturday, November 7, 2009

Win, or Go … to Kansas?

Sunny skies, 80 degrees, strong SSW winds (sorry, allergy sufferers) and high drama are on tap today when ACU and Midwestern State (both 8-2 overall and 3-2 in the LSC South Division) battle for the privilege to continue their seasons in the NCAA Division II playoffs.  The loser may be headed to Topeka, Kan., to play Dec. 5 in the inaugural Kanza Bowl, but more about that in a minute. What to watch for today:
  • Midwestern leads the nation in passing efficiency. ACU leads the nation in rushing defense. Now, those might seem to be of little consequence in a head-to-head match up, but they really matter. If the Wildcats (giving up a paltry 34.3 yards per game) shut down the Mustangs' running game (152.1 yards a game average), that will encourage MSU junior QB Zack Eskridge to throw more, which he does more effectively (187.28 efficiency rating) than anyone in the nation this season. MSU is tremendously accurate in its short-range passing game; in the Mustangs' 38-7 rout of Texas A&M-Kingsville on Oct. 17, Eskridge completed 24 of 25 passes. ACU's superlative pass rush (28 sacks thus far) may not have time to get untracked if MSU employs a quick-strike barrage of short-range passes, so the pressure they bring on Eskridge is crucial.
  • ACU leads this series, 17-4-1, but the Mustangs are awfully hard to beat in Memorial Stadium, with a record of 34-8 during the Coach Bill Maskill era – an .810 winning percentage. MSU is 42-10 (.808) at home since 2000. ACU won the last meeting here, a 42-41 thriller in 2007 that saw the Wildcats rally from a 38-17 deficit midway through the third quarter to earn a spot in the national playoffs.
  • The special teams meltdown ACU experienced last week in the win over A&M-Kingsville – three blocked punts – needs to have been fixed in practice this week. MSU has blocked an astounding 10 kicks this season, and scored 66 points (9 TDs, 1 FG) off those defensive big plays. In fact, MSU has blocked 35 kicks in its last 82 games.
  • The Mustangs are on Cloud 9: they've never been ranked this high (ninth) in the nation. ACU is 12th, having been ranked No. 1 for a brief time earlier this season. Will the heady feeling be an Achilles' heel for MSU? ACU knows all about that.
  • Despite having identical records, MSU is only ranked No. 7 in the region, and ACU is No. 4.  That's largely a result of strength of schedule, thanks to the Wildcats' win over perennial NCAA Division II power Northwest Missouri in the season opener. If the season ended prior to this game being played, the Mustangs would be on the outside looking in, as only the top six teams in regional rankings make the playoffs. MSU owns big wins over New Mexico Highlands, Northeastern State and Incarnate Word (in its first year of playing football), so the voters are not nearly as impressed with that lineup of softies.
  • ACU's ability to rebound last week from two straight losses was largely due to the steady and heady play of redshirt freshman QB Mitchell Gale. They'll need a similar performance today to keep their rediscovered offensive prowess purring, as well as big games from RBs Daryl Richardson and Reggie Brown, and WR Edmund Gates.
  • Speaking of Gates, he has a show-me opportunity today with MSU's fine senior WR Andy Tanner, who has caught passes for 999 yards and 11 TDs this season. After three straight sub-par weeks, Gates caught five passes for 111 yards last week in the big win over A&M-Kingsville, flashing his game-breaking speed on a 72-yard TD. 
  • The Kanza Bowl. It may be the consolation-prize-lovely-parting-gift for today's non-winner. The game will pit the highest-ranked, non-playoff-bound teams from the LSC and Mid-America Intercollegiate Conference. That feels a lot like the 1976 Shrine Bowl, played in Pasadena (Texas, not California … rats), which pitted teams in similar situations from the LSC and Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference. As luck would have it, that turned out to be ACU and its Church of Christ recruiting rival Harding University, two sister schools that had never squared off before – or since – on the gridiron. The 1976 Wildcats were star-laden – future ACU Sports Hall of Fame QB Jim Reese, world-record field goal kicker Ove Johansson, and future NFL players Johnny Perkins (WR), Wilbert Montgomery (RB) and his brother, Cle Montgomery (WR-KR). Wilbert was hurt and did not play, still recovering from a thigh injury (that occurred, ironically, in a neutral-site game in Wichita Falls' Memorial Stadium with Cameron University). ACU beat the Bison, 22-12, in a bowl game seemingly witnessed by more Shriners than fans in a testy contest that saw a Harding player crash into Johansson on a kick attempt, injuring the Swede's knee. All that to say this: there could be worse things than a post-season consolation bowl game in an out-of-the way place. The 1976 Wildcats (9-2) went on to an 11-1-1 record in 1977, losing that pesky Homecoming game but winning ACU's most recent national championship.

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