It’s not often you can say two 5-1 teams are in dire need of a win, but that’s the case in Saturday’s Lone Star Conference South Division clash between No. 15 Tarleton State and No. 18 Midwestern State.
Both teams need a win to keep pace in the South, as Midwestern is 1-1 in the league with a 20-17 loss to Angelo State and a 31-19 defeat of West Texas A&M, and Tarleton is 0-1 after last week’s 34-20 loss at Texas A&M-Kingsville.
Each could also use a win to strengthen their stance in the Super Region 4 rankings as Midwestern is currently ninth and Tarleton isn’t in the top 10. The top six teams in the final regional rankings advance to the NCAA Division II playoffs.
The Texans and Mustangs meet at 7 p.m. Saturday at Tarleton Memorial Stadium.
“This is a big one regardless of regional rankings,” Tarleton head coach Sam McElroy said. “We have bigger problems than that. We have to get our first win in the South.”
Midwestern State head coach Bill Maskill, who is on the committee responsible for the regional poll, also downplays its importance at this time of year, but does note that Saturday’s game will certainly help the winner’s playoff chances.
“Those rankings are based solely on computer formulas the NCAA comes up with, and they don’t mean anything until the end of the year. We’re just focused on ourselves and playing better each week and finding a way to win against a good Tarleton team,” Maskill said. “Having said that, a win on Saturday would certainly help (in the region).”
Tarleton has dominated the series between the schools this decade, winning six straight meetings since the Mustangs’ last victory in the series in 2000. The Texans upended MSU 37-16 in Wichita Falls last year.
But McElroy says past meetings won’t have any affect on Saturday’s outcome.
“They have a different team than last year and so do we,” McElroy said. “That stuff doesn’t matter once the ball leaves the tee.”
Not that Maskill, whose club picked up its first win against West Texas A&M in five years, has forgotten the fact that he has never led the Mustangs to a win against Tarleton.
“We’ve never beat Tarleton during my tenure here. I told somebody last week, to make a rivalry both teams have to win some. I know it was exciting for us last week to finally beat West Texas. As a coach, you want to get that first win against a team, and I’m sure you do as a player, too.”
The coaches share a great amount of respect for their opponent, with their general assessment of the other team almost mirroring one another.
“Midwestern looks a lot like Kingsville. They have a big offensive line, a talented quarterback and several good running backs,” McElroy said. “They’re similar talent-wise and in a lot of the ways they try to do things.”
Maskill didn’t compare Tarleton to one of his team’s previous opponents, but did praise the Texans’ physical play and athleticism.
“They have an experienced defense that is fast, physical and agressive, and they’re that way on offense, too. They’re big and physical,” Maskill said. “They also have a good kicking game and they are well coached. When you throw all that together you have a pretty good football team.”
Maskill said there is no question the improvement of sophomore quarterback Zack Eskridge has been critical to his club’s success.
“No doubt he’s a lot better than he was a year ago. Last year he hadn’t played in two years (Eskridge was previously a redshirt transfer) and he was just trying to fit in at school and with the team,” Maskill said. “But he got better as the year went on and had a great spring. He’s gotten off to a great start this year.”
Eskridge, who has a 17-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio, is tops in the LSC in pass efficiency at 182.1. He is 113-163 passing for a league-best 69.3 percent and averages 265.2 yards per night through the air.
The QB’s go-to guy in the passing game has been Andy Tanner, who has 39 receptions for 618 yards and 7 TDs including 11 catches for 140 yards and a pair of scores to earn LSC South Offensive Player of the Week honors last week.
Tarleton also has its own lethal pass-catch combo in QB Scott Grantham and receiver Devin Guinn. The two hooked up nine times last week for 119 yards and a TD, pulling Guinn within four scoring receptions of the school’s career mark of 25. For the season Grantham is 72-135 (53.3 percent) for 1,070 yards and eight TDs with an efficiency rating of 130.6. Guinn has 31 catches for 473 yards and three scores.
Defensively, both teams are easily among the best in the conference. Tarleton is tops in total defense, allowing 233.5 yards per night, while Midwestern is third at 262.3. The Mustangs lead the league in scoring defense at 9.2 points per game, followed immediately by Tarleton in second at 12.0.
McElroy says the key for the Texans will be avoiding the mistakes that have hurt them in previous weeks, especially in the loss to Texas A&M-Kingsville when Tarleton turned the ball over six times and committed 17 penalties for 118 yards. Eight of TAMUK’s 24 first downs came via penalty.
“It’s hard any time you turn the ball over, and you certainly can’t turn it over that many times and win in this league,” McElroy said. “A lot of our penalties were just mental things. Nine of the 17 were alignment penalties, either for offsides or false starts. Those are things that are easy to fix, we just have to fix them.”
Tarleton also hopes to have a bigger presence from all-time TD leader Roderick Smith this week after he rushed for only seven yards on 11 carries in Kingsville.
“Rod’s been nursing his leg for a while. He has good days and bad days,” McElroy said. “He’s a tough kid, he’s just not 100 percent.”
Both teams will need to be as close to 100 percent as possible on Saturday.
“It’s another big game,” McElroy said. “We’ll be saying that every week the rest of the way in this league.”