By Daniel Johnson, Sports Editor
If the ACU football team wants to win its Lone Star Conference South Division opener on Saturday, the nationally ranked Wildcats need to do one thing: stop Michael Benton.
The Eastern New Mexico University quarterback is the head of the No. 1 running game in the nation that averages 403 yards per game and holds an unblemished 4-0 record. Benton alone averages 187.8 rushing yards per game and has rushed for a total of 751 yards and eight touchdowns in the Greyhounds’ first four games.
“If we shut him down, we shut down 40 percent of their offense,” said senior linebacker Cody Stutts.
Benton and the Greyhounds are coming off a 21-7 win over the University of Central Oklahoma, the only team to beat the Wildcats this season. Benton racked up 243 yards, rushed for two touchdowns and threw for another in the win. The No. 1 rusher in the nation posted the second best rushing yards total in Eastern New Mexico history and was named LS South Offensive Player of the Week because of it.
“Obviously we want to stop Michael Benton, he’s one of the best players in the league,” said head coach Chris Thomsen. “I mean, he single handedly destroyed UCO; we’ve got to stop Michael, and we know that.”
But Benton’s explosiveness is nothing new to ACU’s defense.
The Wildcats shut down and shut out Benton and the Greyhounds in 2006, sacking him four times and holding him to minus-4 yards on the ground on 15 carries in a 21-0 victory.
The win was the last time ACU shut out a team and rocketed the Wildcats to 4-0. So Benton could be looking for revenge.
“Last year we shut them out, but this year they’re a lot more experienced,” Stutts said. “We’re just preparing the best we can to cut his stats in half.”
This season, ACU’s defense has allowed an averaged of 96 yards per game, three rushing touchdowns, and the Wildcats’ rushing defense is ranked No. 24 in Division II football.
The Greyhounds’ rushing attack isn’t their only strength.
Eastern New Mexico has the second best scoring defense in the LSC, are second in the conference in rushing defense and fourth in total defense. Its only defensive weakness is its passing defense, a weakness ACU may be able to exploit.
The Wildcats’ passing offense, ranked No. 24 in the nation, averages 253.0 yards per game and has scored 10 passing touchdowns so far this season. Junior quarterback Billy Malone is coming off a 302-yard, four-touchdown game against Southwestern Oklahoma State University, one of the best defenses in the LSC North.
Malone’s two favorite targets, junior wide receiver Johnny Knox and senior wide receiver Jerale Badon, are both in the top 10 of the LSC for receiving yards per game and receptions per game. Knox averages 96.0 receiving yards per game and caught four touchdowns this season. Badon, the ACU all-time leader in catches and receiving yards, has three touchdown catches and averages 69.2 receiving yards per game.
“There are certain times when a team starts finding its groove, and that’s what we’re kind of doing offensively,” said offensive coordinator Ken Collums.
What is probably the most important aspect of the Wildcats upcoming game is a chance to start 1-0 in the loaded LSC South Division.
The LSC South includes four undefeated and four nationally ranked teams, and an ACU win Saturday could be a step towards ACU’s second NCAA Division II playoff berth.
“It’s crucial,” Thomsen said. “Every game is big, but to win your first one in the South is crucial.”
ACU and Eastern New Mexico will kick off at 7 p.m. at Shotwell Stadium.