November 4, 2009

On Cowboys and 'Indians'

When asked before the season what would define their season, McMurry coach Hale Mumme had a simple answer.

“Getting a win,” Mumme said after taking over a program that had lost 13 in a row entering the season. “They haven’t had one of those around here in a while.”

So, even though it was evident immediately that McMurry was better early in the season, getting that win took a while. They opened the season with four straight losses. Nail-biting defeats to Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference contenders Trinity and Austin were followed by blowout losses to current ASC leaders Mississippi College and Mary-Hardin Baylor.

It wasn’t until October 3 that McMurry finally broke through with an impressive and emotional win over East Texas Baptist. The victory ended their losing streak at 17 games. Since then, they haven’t lost.

Mumme also mentioned a bit hand that a win against cross town rival in Abilene, Hardin Simmons, might define the whole decade or at least show that his program had turned the corner. McMurry has long been the Cowboys whipping boy. They haven’t defeated HSU since the 1960’s when Texas coaching legend Grant Teaff was at the helm. They have been the third class citizens in town for a while now, as the Division II Abilene Christian program is a perennial playoff contender much like Hardin-Simmons.

So a few months ago, with the Cowboys coming off another playoff appearance and ranked fifth in the nation, the mere though that McMurry could be beat Hardin-Simmons seemed merely wishful thinking.

But as we enter the first week of play in November and the final game of the year for Hardin-Simmons, that idea does not sound as farfetched.

Hardin-Simmons started the season with a big nonconference victory over Whitworth, but then lost four straight games due in large part to a slew of injuries that included star quarterback Justin Feaster and several other large components of their offense and defense. It was the first time that the Cowboys had lost four straight games under veteran coach Jimmy Keeling.

But after sitting at 1-4, Hardin-Simmons (5-4, 4-3 ASC) had a rebirth of its own. The Cowboys have run off four straight victories themselves.

So when the teams take the field at McMurry on Saturday, even though there’s not a conference title or playoff bid on the line, there’s still a lot riding on this game. For McMurry, it’s not only a chance to guarantee a .500 record for the first time since 2005, it’s an opportunity at gaining respect. It’s an opportunity to shed their third wheel status around Abilene and dream of bigger things to come.

For the Cowboys, a victory would guarantee not only another winning season, but stifle some of the disappointment of a season that began with such high expectations, then imploded in a rash of injuries and early season losses. Hardin-Simmons was among the best teams in the nation beginning this season. A five-game winning streak to close the year could help propel them right back near the top next year.

“They’re so big and strong,” Mumme said of the Cowboys. “I worry about us being physical enough to stay with them.”

You would expect a high-scoring shoot-out type game. Both offenses are averaging over 380 yards a game, while both defenses are allowing over 340. The Cowboys attack has more balance. With the loss of Feaster, running backs Steven Rockwell and Derrick Grant have combined to rush for over 1,000 yards this season. Cowboy quarterback Taylor Byrd has shown the ability to make some plays in the pass game with a stil talented group of receivers led by Thomas Labian and big-play threat Justice Baker.

McMurry will counter with Mumme’s “Air Raid” scheme directed by quarterback Jake Mullin. Mullin has completed 20 passes to six different receivers this season. In all, the sophomore has completed nearly two-thirds of his passes for nearly 2,300 yards with 19 touchdowns and just seven interceptions.

A key to the game could be third down and which defense can get off the field most. Both offenses are converting more than 40 percent of their third downs, but both defenses are also allowing more than 40 percent to be converted.

Howard Payne pulls an upset

While McMurry deserves attention for its turnaround with a high profile coach and four-game win streak, another ASC team that had won just three games over the previous two seasons has also began its climb back to respectability. And they did it in dramatic fashion.

Howard Payne, the ASC’s oldest football program, had lost three in a row entering last Saturday’s contest against conference leader Mississippi College. Two of those losses were heartbreakers, a 38-31 loss at Hardin-Simmons and 51-45, triple overtime loss to Louisiana College.

But the Yellow Jackets forced seven turnovers, picking off Choctaw quarterback Adam Shaffer five times, to pull the upset 38-24. Quarterback Zach Hubbard passed for 453 yards and five touchdowns and added 33 rushing yards. The Jackets also did not turn the ball over. Being plus-seven in turnover margin will win you a lot of ball games.

Now at 4-4, HPU will try to play giant-killer two weeks in a row. They host Mary Hardin-Baylor this Saturday. It was the Jackets back in 2005 that were the last ASC team to beat the Crusaders before the Choctaws knocked them off a few weeks ago ending a 33-game ASC win streak. UMHB (7-1) desperately needs to win its last two games to remaining in the running for an at large (Pool C) playoff bid. Howard Payne is trying guarantee itself at least a .500 season.

For Mississippi College, the loss was disappointing, especially at home. However, the Choctaws appear to be in good shape to gain the conference’s automatic qualifier (Pool A bid,) as they take on Sul Ross State and Texas Lutheran in the season’s last two weeks. The pair currently have a combined record of 2-15.

Huntingdon looking good for Pool B

Huntingdon used a record-setting day from running back Alex Baronich and seven turnovers to defeat LaGrange 51-13 and all but assured them a Pool B playoff bid. Baronich, a senior, rushed for a school best 287 yards and scored three touchdowns, while the Hawk defense picked off six Panther aerials. Three of those interceptions were by sophomore Keith Anthony and all three were indise the 35-yard line.

 “I’d have slept a lot better Friday night and all week if I’d of known those things were going to take place.” Hawks coach Mike Turk said of the victory over a Panther team that knocked his team from playoff consideration a year ago. “Those were definitely the keys to the game.

“Our defense getting turnovers, big turnovers, to stop scoring threats and our ability to run to the football on them, which was not a success for us last year, really made a big difference.”

The Hawks are now 7-1, including a 6-0 regional record. They join Case Western Reserve and Wesley, both unbeaten overall, as the leaders for the three playoff bids (called Pool B) for independents and conferences without an automatic qualifier.

Huntingdon totaled a season-best 594 yards last Saturday. Not bad for a unit already ranked number one in the division in total offense. They only team in the country to average more than 200 rushing and 300 passing yards per game.

While the Hawks have developed a nice rivalry with neighboring Georgia school LaGrange recently, this week an instate rivalry will be born. Next up for Huntingdon is a trip to Birmingham-Southern, Alabama’s only other Division III school. The two Methodist schools will play for the “Wesley Cup.” Think of it as Division III’s version of the Iron Bowl, Alabama/Auburn matchup.

“It’s something we’ve been looking forward to for a long time ever since they started their program,” Turk said. “It’s another big football game.”

Birmingham-Southern, now in its third season has been much improved this season. After winning three games in their first two seasons, the Panthers have improved to 4-4 this season. Tailbacks Walter Arrington and Shawn Morris have combined for over 800 yards and 13 touchdowns for BSC.

SCAC title still in the balance

In the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference, three teams, DePauw, Millsaps and Centre, are tied at the top of the conference.

Millsaps (6-3, 5-1) clinched at least a share of the title, their fourth straight, by crushing Sewanee 61-7 last week. The Majors are off this week and have Birmingham Southern, who doesn’t count in the SCAC this season, in the season finale.

Centre (7-1, 4-1) closes its season by traveling to Trinity Saturday. The Colonels bounced back from their loss to Millsaps a couple weeks ago by stomping Rhodes 37-10. A victory in San Antonio would clinch a share of the title for the Kentucky school. Last season, Centre upset the Tigers at home 26-17, ruining their Pool C playoff chances. I’m sure the Texas Tigers would love to return the favor this season.

DePauw (6-1, 4-1) can also clinch a share of the title if they beat Austin at home this weekend. Despite the possibility of a three-way tie which could making determining who gets the SCAC automatic (Pool A)bid tricky, the Indiana Tigers appear to be a great bet to get a playoff bid if they beat the Roos and arch rival Wabash (7-1) on November 14. Winning the Monon Bell would probably earn DePauw a Pool C (at large bid) even if they lose a Pool A bid on a tiebreaker.

So how does the three-way tiebreaker work? As I understand it, if everybody wins out, Centre, despite its loss to Millsaps, gets the Pool A bid. The Majors would be out because of they would have a worse record (7-3). Then it would go back to a head-to-head situation and since the Colonels beat DePauw34-24 in September, they get the bid.

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Justin Goldberg

Justin Goldberg is a newspaper copy editor and freelance writer in southwest Virginia. Originally from New York, he played Division III basketball in that colder region of the country, but moved to Virginia in 2008 to earn his M.F.A. in creative writing. He has written for multiple publications, including C-VILLE Weekly and The Roanoke Times. He is happy to join for his first season as the Around the South columnist..
2013 columnist: Andee Djuric
2012 columnist: Kyle Robarts
2008-11 columnist: Jason Bowen

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