Anytime Tarleton State and Abilene Christian clash on the gridiron it’s a big game filled with all the ingredients of a college football rivalry.
Add to the mix that both have identical records (7-1 overall) and are part of a four-way tie for first place in both the Lone Star Conference and the LSC South (5-1 in conference play including 2-1 in the South) and that both are in the chase for a national playoff spot, and you have more drama than you could cut with a knife.
No. 11 Tarleton hosts No. 9 Abilene Christian in the Texans’ homecoming game at 6 p.m. Saturday at Tarleton Memorial Stadium.
“There is a lot of tradition in this game,” Tarleton head coach Sam McElroy said. “We’re located pretty close together and that means there’s always a good crowd, and it’s usually a great game anytime we face those guys.”
ACU head coach Chris Thomsen agrees it’s the location that fuels the rivalry.
“Geographically we’re so close that a lot of the players know each other from playing with or against each other in high school or junior college,” Thomsen said. “Our coaches know their staff well, too, and we have a lot of respect for them. It’s just a good college football rivalry.”
The fact that both have been successful in recent years - this season included - doesn’t hurt.
In 2007 Tarleton entered the game 8-0 and ACU was 7-1. The Wildcats prevailed in a 70-63 shootout in Stephenville.
Last year the tables were turned with the Wildcats sitting at 8-0 and Tarleton traveling to Abilene with a 7-1 mark. Again ACU took the win, this time 37-17.
Including this year’s records, the rivals have entered their meeting a combined 44-4 over the last three seasons.
“We’ve certainly been here before, going into the last three games of the season with everything still on the line. The last few years we haven’t finished the way we would have liked, and a lot of that’s because of who we’ve played,” McElroy said. “Abilene Christian has a very talented football team and they do a lot of things well. We don’t expect any less than that out of them on Saturday.”
Both teams enter the game with a loaded offensive backfield and dominant defense.
Abilene Christian is first in the LSC in rushing at 200.4 yards per game, Tarleton is second with an average of 180. The Wildcats have the No. 1 and No. 6 backs in the LSC in Daryl Richardson (97 yards per game) and Reggie Brown (74.7). The Texans have the No. 4 and No. 5 backs in Evan Robertson (81.8) and Roderick Smith (81.1).
Defensively, ACU tops the conference in total defense and run defense, while Tarleton is second in both. The Wildcats give up just 40 yards per game on the ground, Tarleton just 95.9. In total defense, ACU surrenders 266.2 yards per game, Tarleton 269.9.
Something’s got to give.
In addition to the national rankings and conference and division standings, both are also fighting for positioning in the Super Region 4 rankings. In this week’s poll ACU is No. 4 and Tarleton is No. 10. The top six at the end of the year will advance to the NCAA Division II playoffs.
“I don’t worry about (the regional rankings) because those things take care of themselves if you take care of business on the field,” McElroy said. “With the teams we play the last few weeks of the season, the strength of schedule and all the other things that go into that formula will be there for us. We just have to find a way to win those games.”
Thomsen couldn’t possibly agree more.
“The way the South is, if you take care of business everything will fall into place because you’re playing a good team every week,” Thomsen said. “Even if you’re outside (the top six), if you win all your games you’re going to get in there.”
“You just learn to accept that you have to be at you’re best every week because all the teams are solid to spectacular across the board,” he continued. “That’s just life in the South.”