As hard as Tarleton State head football coach Sam McElroy and Texas A&M-Kingsville head coach Bo Atterberry try to downplay it, there is no denying the truth.
Saturday’s game at Javelina Stadium in Kingsville is huge for both teams.
No. 11 Tarleton is 5-0 for the third consecutive year and only the seventh time in school history. Its defense is second in all of NCAA Division II in points allowed (7.6). The defense and special teams combined have scored as many touchdowns (4) as its opponents this season.
Not to be outdone, No. 9 Texas A&M-Kingsville is 5-0 for the first time since 2004. The Javelinas are 16th in the nation in scoring defense (14.4) and unlike the Texans, who for the most part have breezed past lesser competition, they have been tested twice, surviving despite five turnovers against both Delta State and West Texas A&M (in overtime).
If the hype of both teams being undefeated and highly ranked isn’t enough, throw in the fact that it’s a Lone Star Conference South Division contest - the first for Tarleton - and that 10,000 fans are expected to attend, and you have the perfect environment for what appears to be a thrilling match-up.
“There’s no doubt, it’s a big game,” McElroy said. “But they’re all going to be big from here on out. We just try to start over each Monday and find ways to win that week.”
“Oh yeah, they’re all big in the LSC,” Atterberry said. “This one’s just big because it’s the one we have this week.”
TAMUK is a traditional power that has won seven NAIA national championships before joining the D2 ranks. The Javelinas are winners of a record 26 LSC championships, most of them coming when the school was known as Texas A&I.
There have been some rebuilding years in South Texas since the school’s last conference crown in 2004. The Javs were a combined 12-20 over the next three seasons, including 3-8 in Atterberry’s first campaign in 2007. He has quickly turned the program back around, going 7-4 and narrowly missing the playoffs last year before the big start to this season.
Since becoming a full-fledge member of D2 in 1995, Tarleton has won one conference crown and been to the national playoffs twice. Coincidentally, the Texans’ last playoff appearance was a 34-10 first-round loss at Kingsville in 2003.
Since then, Tarleton, which is one win shy of securing its 10th straight winning season, has won virtually all the games it was supposed to, but has struggled in big contests. That has especially been true in South games, as the Texans have lost to Abilene Christian each of the last two years and to West Texas A&M in four straight season finales surrounded by playoff implications. They also fell to TAMUK at home last season, 27-16.
Since moving up from the NAIA, Tarleton is 20-9 on the road when ranked in the top 25 by the American Football Coaches Association. The Texans, however, are only 11-27 in games against ranked opponents, 7-12 when both teams are ranked and just 4-7 when both teams are ranked and Tarleton is away from home. The Texans are 1-12 against top 10 teams since joining D2.
But they are also 17-5 on the road under McElroy, who is 35-12 overall in his four-plus seasons as head coach. He guided the program to its only win at Javelina Stadium in school history in 2007, albeit in a rebuilding year for TAMUK.
“We haven’t had much success down there, that’s for sure,” McElroy said. “But that’s all in the past and doesn’t have any affect on this game. Most of the guys we have now have never been to Kingsville.”
Atterberry hopes playing at home will be an advantage for the Hogs.
“We’re expecting at least 10,000,” he said. “I’m hoping for 12,000.”
He’s also hoping his team can avoid turnovers after giving the ball away 11 times in its first five games, including five each against Delta State and West Texas A&M.
“We were very fortunate to get wins out of those two games,” Atterberry said. “We go into each week looking to win the turnover battle. We know we can’t turn it over that many times and win this week.”
McElroy, on the other hand, hopes his defense can continue to take the ball away at the rate it has in recent weeks. The Texans have forced 10 turnovers this season and have scored three defensive touchdowns in the last three weeks.
“We’re always looking for a way to get some type of advantage,” the Tarleton coach said. “Takeaways would go a long way toward improving our chances to win (on Saturday).”
McElroy also believes third down conversions will be key. Texas A&M-Kingsville is second offensively in the LSC at converting on third down at 45-percent, while Tarleton’s defense is tops in third down situations, holding opponents to a success rate of just 25 percent.
“Third down conversions will be crucial for both teams,” McElroy said. “It will be tough for us because they have a great defense, but I feel like we have a great defense, too.”
Good defenses aren’t the only similarities between the teams. Tarleton averages 38.6 points per game, Kingsville averages 33.4. The Texans are rushing for 204.4 yards per contest, the Javs are running for 185.8.
The biggest offensive difference is in the passing game where TAMUK, led by quarterback Billy Garza, throws for an average of 285.2 yards and Tarleton, with QB Scott Grantham, averages 185.8. Much of that difference is due to the Texans attempting only five passes in a rain-soaked rout of East Central.
“Any way you look at it it’s a great matchup,” Atterberry said. “Looking at it on paper you can’t really find much of an advantage for either team. That’s why we’re glad we get to decide it on the field.”
McElroy says the Texans relish the opportunity to do just that.
“Big games are fun. They are the reason you put in all the hard work,” he said. “Games like this are what it’s all about.”
See the Friday edition of the E-T for more on the “Lone Star Showdown.”