By Daniel Johnson, Sports Editor
The ACU football team is nationally ranked for the first time since 1997 and head coach Chris Thomsen is focused on one thing: the next opponent on the schedule.
“I’m glad our players and assistant coaches have been recognized for their hard work early in the season,” Thomsen said. “But I don’t put a lot of stock in early national rankings. I’ll relax when our team is ranked at the end of the season.”
ACU will put its newly acquired national ranking and undefeated record on the line Saturday in the Lone Star Conference South Division opener against University of Eastern New Mexico in Blackwater, N.M.
The team received rankings in four Division II polls after its 31-0 blowout against the Southwestern Oklahoma State on Sept. 30. The highest of ACU’s four rankings is No. 17 by www.collegesportsreport.com and the lowest is No. 25 by the American Association of Football Coaches. The Wildcats have not been ranked since they were 5-1 on Oct. 13, 1997, after defeating Midwestern State 34-14.
One major contributor to the recent success and long absent national respect is the Wildcats’ consistent defensive production in their first three wins. But that defense faces a new challenge in New Mexico, an old-fashioned option-running offense.
The Eastern New Mexico Greyhounds are the only team in the Lone Star Conference using a triple option as it’s main weapon and quarterback Michael Benton is the key. Benton leads the LSC with 488 yards, five touchdowns and a rushing average of 162.7 yards on 69 carries. All five of Benton’s touchdowns are on the ground, and he has yet to throw a touchdown pass.
ACU’s defense against the run is among the best in the nation and leads the LSC, after only allowing 72.7 yards-per- game in three games. Middle linebacker Cody Stutts headlines that defense with 23 tackles.
Stutts’ fellow running back and former first team all-LSC player Marcus Brown is close behind with 21 tackles of his own and Defensive end Travis Carpenter leads the team in sacks with six for a loss of 33 yards.
“Our defense has been focusing on three basics, assignment, technique and effort,” Stutts said. “If we all know those three things, it’s hard to stop a defense.”
ACU’s biggest chance to score points will be in the air against the league’s worst passing defense. Eastern New Mexico allowed an average of 232 yards-per-game and is ranked last in the LSC against the pass. ACU quarterback Billy Malone is third in the league with an average of 244 yards per game and six touchdowns.
The Greyhounds beat the Wildcats in their last two meetings, including last year’s 33-30 come-from-behind victory. The Wildcats lost at home in 2005 and lead the overall series of games against Eastern New Mexico 16-11.
The Wildcats will be 4-0 with a win Saturday, after defeating three of the six teams in the LSC North Division. The away game is one of two the Wildcats play before Homecoming against Angelo State on Oct. 14. ACU is 1-0 on the road after blowing out the former nationally ranked Southeastern Oklahoma State 51-14 on Sept. 16.