By Joel Weckerly, Sports Editor
The Wildcats head into Saturday’s Homecoming game against conference rival Angelo State with an undefeated division record on the line, as well as a possible three-game win streak for the first time in three years. They’ll also be playing in front of thousands of students and alumni who expect an ACU victory.
But it’s just another game. At least, that’s how head coach Gary Gaines looks at it.
“The importance of this game is that it’s the next game on our schedule,” he said. “It sounds awful trite, but it’s true. We told our players we try to prepare them the same way week in and week out.”
If the Cats are prepared the same way they were the past two weeks, then it’s a good sign of what’s to come. ACU snatched two dramatic victories off Eastern New Mexico and Central Oklahoma the past two weeks with scores of 20-19 and 22-20, respectively. The two wins, which each came down to a deciding field goal by sophomore kicker Eben Nelson, put the team at 2-3 overall and 1-0 in the Lone Star Conference South Division.
Angelo State, on the other hand, enters this week’s game with a little less momentum. The Rams stand at 1-4 overall and 1-1 in the LSC South following a 23-14 loss to Eastern New Mexico in their own homecoming game last week. Despite the poor record, three of ASU’s four defeats have been by no more than nine points, and all losses have been to teams with winning records.
“They are much better than their record indicates,” Gaines said. “People might look at the record and think they’re a poor team, but it’s not true. They’re a dangerous team.”
But Angelo State won’t have an easy time playing at a packed Shotwell Stadium. ACU junior linebacker Brad Walton said the team gets even more fired up for Homecoming games.
“Anytime you look up and the stadium’s full, it gets you a lot more excited,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity to shine and show what the team can do.”
Junior quarterback Colby Freeman echoed these thoughts.
“The atmosphere we’ll have Saturday is the type we’d like to have every game,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to show a lot of people how much we’ve improved and to get the alumni excited about where our program is going.”
The last time ACU won three games in a row was the middle of the 1999 season. Gaines said he would like to get three in a row, but not just to break a record.
“We’d like to keep winning to keep us in contention for the South zone championship,” Gaines said. “We need to continue building. The season’s half over now, and we need to start stacking some of these Ws together.”
Team morale is already high after winning two straight, and Walton said a third victory would cause it to soar.
“Putting a winning streak together-that makes football,” Walton said. “Spirits have been high in practice, and practice is what makes you better. Hopefully it will carry on to Saturday and to the season.”
And with that, the Wildcats find themselves in a bit of a pressure situation-not only to keep their streak alive, but also to beat a team they have a rocky history against. Since 1978, Angelo has won 22 of 26 meetings between the two teams. ACU is 2-2 against ASU on Homecoming, but has lost two straight (18-16 in 1998 and 27-25 in 2000).
“It’s kinda nice to be in a pressure position,” Freeman said. “I don’t think we wouldn’t want that pressure. I definitely feel like every conference game will be a turning point; every week can make or break us. They should bring us their best game Saturday.”
To combat that, Gaines said the Wildcats would need to eliminate the penalties and turnovers that have hurt them in the past, and the defense would need to stop big plays more efficiently. Last week ACU was called on 12 penalties, costing them 76 yards. On the season, ACU has turned the ball over nine times, resulting in 23 points for opponents.
On the flip side, Gaines said the Cats are starting to run the ball better, the passing game is coming around and the offensive line is protecting well.
“We need to play as well as we can play on Saturday,” Gaines said. “It’ll be a tough game, I can tell you that. It’ll be hard-fought and down to the wire.”
Kickoff for Saturday’s game in Shotwell Stadium is set for 2 p.m.