By Dave Wagner: CNJ sports writer
Don’t look now, but someone is quietly sneaking up the Lone Star Conference South Division football ladder.
After earning the favorite’s nod in the South’s preseason poll and a No. 25 national ranking, Tarleton State promptly went out and dropped its first three games.
The Texans, though, have followed with three consecutive wins and hope to keep their division title chances alive when they host Eastern New Mexico University in a 1 p.m. (MDT) kickoff today at Stephenville, Texas.
Tarleton (3-3, 2-0 South) is coming off a 38-17 shellacking of then-No. 24 Midwestern State, and currently trails only 20th-ranked Abilene Christian in the division race.
“The last couple of weeks we’ve put things together pretty well,” Texans coach Sam McElroy said. “Hopefully, we can continue that.
“I’m just disappointed that it took us this long.”
Meantime, the Greyhounds (1-5, 0-3) come in with a four-game losing streak, though buoyed by a strong performance in last week’s 21-14 “Wagon Wheel” loss to fourth-ranked West Texas A&M at Blackwater Draw.
The Hounds led 14-0 at halftime, but an 87-yard touchdown return of the second-half kickoff by WT’s Jason Jones helped the Buffaloes quickly turn the tide.
The trick for ENMU is to maintain last week’s relatively high level of play, and do it on the road.
“Our kids put a lot into it, and we had a good game plan,” ENMU coach Mark Ribaudo said of facing WT. “As great as they are (on offense), if we can stop their pass, we’ve got a shot.”
The return of Texans sophomore running back Michael Sampson from injury in the last couple of weeks makes ENMU’s task a little tougher.
“He’s a big kid (6-foot-1, 221 pounds) and a strong runner,” McElroy said. “He gives us a little more punch.”
Until recently, the Hounds have had the better of it with the Texans. They won the first 12 matchups between the schools, but have now dropped the last two — 55-14 in 2001 at Stephenville and 34-27 last year at Blackwater Draw.
“I think they’re starting to develop into the team everybody thought they were,” Ribaudo said. “Tarleton’s always a solid team. They’re just in a part of the country where they like to play football and they know how to build a program.”
Meantime, the Hounds have had to deal with a plethora of injuries, Ribaudo said, particularly in the offensive line. Relatively inexperienced in that area at the start of the year anyway, he noted that guard Kevin Parker went down for the season several weeks while guard Landon Schumacher (pinched nerve) and tackle Jeff Ashabrenner (concussion) are not expected to play this week.
Fullbacks J.J. Jennings (bulging disc) and Patrick Hemphill (ankle) are also nursing injuries.
“That’s the difference between this year’s offense and last year’s,” said Ribaudo, whose squad is averaging an LSC-low 11.3 points per game. “They’ve really never had a chance to jell. It’s going to be tough because one of Tarleton’s strengths has always been their defensive front.”