Friday, September 2, 2011

Booth Review: Surviving Pur-Palooza

ACU 27 Tarleton State 24
Shortly after laying waste to several pounds of meat at Hard Eight BBQ in Stephenville late Thursday afternoon, your intrepid Wildcat broadcast team (Lance Fleming, Michael Bacon and me) waddled into the Memorial Stadium parking lot just in time to hear the musical stylings of Matt Wayne & Company as they serenaded students at Tarleton State's tailgate party known as Texan Alley.

"THAT'S why we need an on-campus stadium," Lance said.

It was a groovy scene, to be sure. Loud music, good food, fired-up fans. As we walked through the gate and up the stairs to the press box, we heard someone on stage - presumably Matt Wayne, himself, or perhaps someone in his Company - say:

"This next song is about goin' down to Mexico to buy marijuana and try to bring it back to the states!"

Okay, so we still need an on-campus stadium. Just maybe not that band.

Playing Tarleton in any sport is always a little peculiar to the eye. Because both schools' colors are purple and white, the games against them tend to look like intrasquad scrimmages. And after sauteeing in the frying pan that was Memorial Stadium for better than three hours Thursday night, I still couldn't tell much of a difference between the two.

The score showed ACU won, 27-24, by way of Daryl Richardson's Bernard-esque 23-yard touchdown catch-juke-and-dash with 1:09 to play in the 4th quarter, relentless pressure from the Wildcats' defensive line and Nate Bailey's goal-line interception on the game's final play.

But, as the score and those aforementioned details would suggest, the game could have gone either way.

Both teams looked ragged. ACU's offense frequently appeared confused in its substitutions. Tarleton committed four drive-extending personal fouls and coach Cary Fowler seemed to spend more time on the field barking at the officials than talking to his own players.

Both teams are clearly talented. Texans QB Nick Stephens, a former starter at Tennessee who was injured and didn't play in his team's 65-3 loss in Abilene last year, is humongous at 6-5, 230. He made a lot of big throws, often with large humans in purple helmets bearing down on him. Wildcats sophomore RB Charcandrick West partially blocked a punt in the 1st quarter and turned a short pass into a 41-yard touchdown reception down the far sideline. University of Maryland transfer LB Derek Drummond looked like a D1 player with an interception at the goal line and a sack in his first game in an ACU uniform.

More than anything it seemed each was determined to keep the other in the game. ACU had 14 penalties, mostly false starts and illegal procedures from a group breaking in six new starters. It felt like 114. I commented on the air that it was the second time this week ACU had staged a Parade of Flags. Sadly, none from cool places like the Plurinational State of Bolivia. Only yellow ones that meant ACU had to move backward. Meanwhile, by throwing two goal-line interceptions - in the final 30 seconds of each half - and missing two very makeable field goals, Tarleton squandered anywhere from 12-20 points.

Both teams have a lot to work on. It's just that ACU gets to work on its stuff at 1-0 - overall and, more important, in the Lone Star Conference. Forget about style points. On a night when West Texas A&M lost at home to Colorado State-Pueblo, 26-24, the only points that matter are the ones on the scoreboard. And ACU had three more than Tarleton Thursday.

A few other observations:

Mitchell Gale. Last year's player of the year finalist was 26-of-49 for 335 yards, 3 TDs and 2 INTs. He matched his regular season interception total from 2010 in the first 47 minutes of 2011. They weren't tipped balls either. More of a combination of miscommunication and poor decision-making. He also overthrew (his bugaboo) a wide-open Taylor Gabriel on a deep route in the second half that likely would have been a touchdown and missed a couple of other receivers at different times who had gained a step on their defenders.

On the other hand, he was running for his life nearly every other play as his offensive line struggled to keep a quick-footed Tarleton defensive front at bay. He was only sacked once but was credited with 10 carries for 25 yards. When your drop-back QB is your second leading ball carrier, your backup better keep his helmet handy. To be fair, Gale was breaking in three new starters (Gabriel, Darian Hogg and Darrell Cantu-Harkless), another who has played sparingly (Austin Kessler) and two more who were suiting up for the first time (transfers Ron Gaudin and Andrew Richards). So what looks like a bad throw may have been exactly where it was supposed to be and the receiver may have been in the wrong spot.

Say this, when ACU needed a score, Gale delivered what amounted (after a holding penalty) to a 76-yard touchdown drive in the closing two minutes, capped by a heads-up forward heave to Daryl Richardson who looked very much like big brother Bernard Scott in using his strength, speed and savvy to find the end zone.

Defense. Wildcats fans have seen the team's regular season defense steadily improve through the years, only to get gouged in the postseason. ACU has given up 76 (3 OT), 45, 35 and 55 points in their last four playoff losses. Last year's defensive strength was its senior linebacking corps of Kevin Washington, Eric Edwards, Bryson Lewis, Courtney Lane and Casey Carr. I didn't call the names of this year's LBs, seniors Nate Baggs and Derek Odelusi, sophomore Thor Woerner, redshirt freshmen Cy Wilson (who did have a sack on his very first play as a Wildcat) and Nick Richardson and transfer Jesse Harper, very often. (As indicated earlier, Drummond had an exceptional game, but by the end he was lining up as a defensive tackle.)

Fortunately for ACU, its defensive line was tremendous. Ryan Smith had three of ACU's eight game-changing sacks, not to mention a heart-melting postgame testimony of how grateful he is to be at ACU and how he plays for an audience of One. And Aston Whiteside and Donald Moore were constantly in the Texans' backfield, even late in a game played in excruciating heat. It's hard to completely shut down that Texas Tech-style spread offense, and Tarleton's version gave ACU trouble. Consider that the Texans' 391 total yards and 52 yards rushing includes the -43 that goes on Stephens' ledger. (College football counts yards lost on sacks against the rushing total; the NFL takes minus sack yardage from a QB's passing yards.) So the two Tarleton RBs - Evan Robertson and Brandon Lowery (3 TDs) - actually combined to rush 21 times for 90 net yards. And Stephens threw for 339 yards. That's pretty good.

The 'Cats will see that wide open offense again this year at least twice (ENMU and WT on Oct. 8 and 15). They need to improve. Way too many blown coverages. But again, like Gale, when the defensive players had to make a play, they did.

Special teams. Spencer Covey, whom I twice during the broadcast renamed "Stephen," knows there is really only One Habit of a Highly Effective Kickoff Specialist, and that's booting the ball through the end zone. He led all of college football in touchbacks last season (39) and was 2 for his first 2 Thursday night. But when his kickoffs and punts (first year as starting punter) were returned, they came out a long way. Both coverage teams gave up a couple of biggies. And after ACU curiously attempted a 55-yard field goal into a slight breeze in the final minute of the first half, Tarleton's Tad Hill even brought back that kick (which came up short) nearly 70 yards to give the Texans a great chance to score. Junior Morgan Lineberry was 2 for 3 kicking field goals, including a clutch 39-yarder with 6:35 to go in the 4th to pull ACU within 24-20, and 3 for 3 on PATs. Covey also did a nice job corralling a couple of errant snaps to give Lineberry a good hold.

Resilience. There aren't a whole lot of teams in Division II who have played in more big games the last five seasons than ACU. Last night felt big and really it was big, especially when you consider each of the nine teams in the newly-contracted LSC plays each other this year. There is much to be said for finding a way to win, even when you haven't played your best.

But I've already said much, so I'll stop with this final caveat: season openers in football are a crap shoot. Teams, especially on the college level and even more so in Division II which perennially sees a heavy influx of D1 transfers, never exactly know what they have. Tarleton now knows it has a much better team than it had last year. We'll see whether or not what ACU has is enough to make it back to the playoffs for a sixth straight year.

I don't know if this team is good enough to make a run at a national championship, but I know this one thing for sure: you'll sooner see Matt Wayne & Company perform at Sing Song than see a Chris Thomsen team go down without a fight.

And THAT'S why we need an on-campus stadium!

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