By Joel Weckerly, Sports Editor
Over the past couple years, the ACU football team has prided itself in starting off its schedule against a series of tough teams. This season is no different.
The Wildcats open their schedule Thursday against Central Arkansas-a team they’ve lost to the past two years-in Conway, Ark. The Bears, who finished 8-3 last season, were ranked No. 4 in Division II in a Sports Illustrated preseason poll.
In a 31-17 win over ACU last season and a 65-16 pounding of the Cats in 2001, UCA certainly proved it possessed a high-powered offense and burning speed on both sides of the ball.
“They’re a Top 10-caliber team,” head coach Gary Gaines said. “If you were to characterize them, they’re a very high-octane offensive football team that has really developed some speed on the defensive side-even more than they’ve had the previous two years. So it’s gonna be a tough contest.”
Guiding the Bears’ offense is senior quarterback Zak Clark, a Harlon Hill Trophy finalist last year. Clark’s 3,157 yards passing and 24 touchdowns in 2002 broke a state collegiate passing record. Helping to block for Clark and catch some of his passes is all-American tight end Landon Trusty. The 6-foot-7, 268-pounder caught 24 passes for six scores last season.
On the defensive side of the ball, safety Cory Cangelosi (59 tackles in 2002) and linebacker Iscom Jones (54) anchor the unit.
“They’re gonna be giving us a pretty good challenge,” senior offensive lineman Britt Lively said. “But we’re pretty confident going into the game. We have a good shot of playing hard and winning.”
Central Arkansas head coach Clint Conque said that opening with the Wildcats would be no easy task.
“I feel like we’re playing a Big 12 team,” he said, noting the transfers ACU has signed from that conference, including Texas A&M, Nebraska and Baylor. “The one thing we do know is that they’re going to be a very formidable opponent and we’re definitely gonna have our hands full.”
Gaines said consistency was key to a Wildcat opening victory.
“We’ve got to eliminate some mental mistakes and silly penalties that we’ve had during the course of fall camp,” Gaines said. “If we’re able to do that, we’ll have a chance to play well against them. Stopping the big play is always key against those guys, because they’re a real quick-strike kind of ball team. If you have alignment mistakes or coverage breakdowns, then you run the risk of having someone run one all the way back on you.”
Conque agreed. “These type of early-season games come down to the team who makes the fewest mistakes,” he said. “With these two teams, who feel like they have a lot to play for this year, who makes the fewest mistakes will probably be the team that has an opportunity to win.”
Gaines also said kicking off the schedule against the Bears would accrue to ACU’s benefit.
“I think we’ll have a pretty good feel for where we are by playing a good opponent like those guys,” he said. “I think you need to play some good people to see where you are. When you play those type of people, it pinpoints where you need to improve and gives you a good self-evaluation of your own team.”
The opener is being played on Thursday rather than Saturday, said Conque, because The University of Arkansas opens its football season at home on Saturday, and UCA wanted an opportunity to play in front of a large crowd on its brand-new $2.5 million grass playing surface in newly remodeled Estes Stadium.
Starting a season on a Thursday isn’t something ACU is used to, but Gaines said it wouldn’t have a large impact on the team.
“It’s unusual,” he said. “We worked out [Sunday] afternoon and it was what would [normally] be our Tuesday practice. It’s unusual, but it’s doable.”
The sooner the better, according to Lively, who said ACU is fired up to play a team other than itself.
“We just want to play,” Lively said. “We’re ready to hit somebody else besides our own players. These last couple practices have been the best since I’ve been here. This team’s mentality is just to win. We’re not worried about who we’re playing.”