A key figure will be missing from the Eastern New Mexico offense when No. 13 Tarleton State visits the Greyhounds in Lone Star Conference South Division play on Saturday.
ENMU head football coach Mark Ribaudo has confirmed that J.J. Harp, the nation's leading passer with 3,275 yards, has been suspended.
"He's been suspended for a violation of team rules," Ribaudo said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.
Harp was one of three players suspended indefinitely for violating university policy, according to a release posted on the school's official athletics Web site, www.enmusports.com, later Wednesday afternoon. The others are wide receiver Darian Dale and running back Michael Henderson.
Harp, a sophomore from Argyle, is more than 600 yards ahead of the nation's second best passer seven weeks into the season. He set NCAA Division II single-game records for completions (64), attempts (94) and passing yards (695) against Southeastern Oklahoma State and also passed for 602 yards against Texas A&M-Commerce.
Harp owns Eastern New Mexico records for career completions (509), single-season completions (293) and single-season pass attempts (481). He has thrown for 22 touchdowns this year.
With the record setter pulling the trigger in the air-it-out attack, the Greyhounds are first in the nation in passing yards (463.7 yards per game) and second in total offense (532.9).
With Harp out, the starting quarterback for the Hounds will be Wesley Wood, a freshman who led Muleshoe to the 2008 Texas Class 2A Division I state championship.
Tarleton head coach Sam McElroy is still preparing his team to see the same type of offense, one that has operated at almost exactly a 3-1 pass-run ratio (498 pass attempts, 169 rushes).
ENMU has eight receivers with 17 or more receptions and four with 34 or more. They are led by Jesse Poku with 63 receptions for 830 yards. Poku is second in the nation in receptions (9.0) and receiving yards (118.6) per game.
"It's going to be a great challenge for our defense," McElroy said. "They have so many guys who run great routes. It's going to take our best defensive effort, that's for sure."
The Texans will be short one key cog on their defensive line as leading pass rusher Jamaal Steamer is out with a groin injury. The senior from Temple has 3.0 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss this season.
"He's going to rest this week and see if he can get it ready to go for next week (against No. 1 Abilene Christian)," McElroy said.
Tarleton still has a stable full of defensive linemen, and McElroy says as many as nine could figure into the rotation on Saturday.
"Against an offensive system like that you have to roll fresh people out there and get pressure on the quarterback," McElroy said.
The Texans boast a deep defensive front that includes Alonzo Horton (2.0 sacks, 3.5 TFL), Bryant Bray (1.5 sacks, 6.0 TFL), Ben Taifane (0.5 sacks, 4 TFL), Jacob Rowe (1.0 sacks, 2.5 TFL) and Josh Douglas (1.0 sacks, 2.0 TFL) among others.
The Tarleton defensive backs will also be heavily challenged.
"It's going to be a big challenge for the guys up front and in the back, but I feel like we have some great guys on defense who look forward to that challenge," McElroy said.
The Texans are second in the LSC in total defense (256.0 yards) and scoring defense (14.3 points). They are first in the league against the pass (153.1 yards). ENMU averages only 59.1 yards per game on the ground and will be facing a Tarleton run defense that surrenders 102.9 rushing yards per contest.
When the Texans have the ball, they will pit the conference's second best rushing attack (184.3 yards per game) against a defense that is near the bottom of the conference in stopping the run (179.1). Tarleton passes for 219.7 yards per game while ENMU has allowed an average of 292.0 through the air.
"Tarleton has a great football team. They've been great for a long time," Ribaudo said. "Coach McElroy is a great football coach, and they have been great every year since he's been there and for a while before that.
"They play great defense. They have a lot of speed in the secondary. On offense they are big and physical. Both running backs (Roderick Smith and Evan Robertson) are tremendous, but they can also throw the ball," the ENMU coach continued. "That is what makes them special. Against some teams you can stop the run or the pass and be okay. Against Tarleton you can't just take one away because they can beat you with both. They are definitely deserving of their No. 13 ranking."
Entering Saturday's contest, Tarleton is 6-1 overall, 4-1 in LSC play and 1-1 in the LSC South. ENMU is 2-5, 2-4 and 0-3, respectively. The Hounds have not won a South Division game since knocking off Angelo State 38-14 on Oct. 1, 2005.
Eastern New Mexico won the first 12 meetings in the series that dates back to 1961, but Tarleton has won the last five including last year's 42-21 victory in Stephenville.
Kickoff at Greyhound Stadium in Blackwater Draw, NM on Saturday is set for 7 p.m. (CST).