Archive for October, 2013

An ode to small college football

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

I will sit down in front of my television on Thursday night and watch Southern Arkansas University play Harding University in football at Magnolia.

The game is being telecast nationally by the CBS Sports Network.

What a wonderful boost this is for small college football in Arkansas.

For a 31st season, I’m doing football play-by-play on radio for Ouachita Baptist University. I haven’t missed a game, home or away, since 1998. The reason I missed a couple of games that year was because I was the campaign manager for then-Gov. Mike Huckabee and just didn’t feel as if I could be out of state during the stretch run of that campaign.

Ouachita’s late start this year — the opener wasn’t until Sept. 14 — allowed me to see all of the state’s NCAA Division I teams and its lone NCAA Division III team in person during the first 10 days of the season.

On Aug. 29, I watched the University of Central Arkansas beat Incarnate Word in Conway.

Two days later, I drove to Jonesboro to see Arkansas State University defeat the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

On Sept. 7, I watched Hendrix College beat Westminster College during the afternoon at Conway and saw the University of Arkansas down Samford University at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock that evening.

It was all great fun. I love college football, you see.

But I’m glad that my Saturdays for the next few weeks will be devoted to the Division II teams that play in the Great American Conference.

It’s who I am.

It’s what I was raised on.

If you’re tired of traffic, inflated ticket prices and high concession costs — or if your favorite Division I team is simply playing out of state — you ought to try catching a game in Arkadelphia, Magnolia, Monticello, Searcy or Russellville.

You might be pleasantly surprised by the quality of play.

Growing up in Arkadelphia, within walking distance of the Ouachita and Henderson stadiums, the old Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference was what I knew when it came to college sports. I look back fondly all these years later on the games I attended as a child.

I still remember the afternoons at A.U. Williams Field when Ouachita upset previously undefeated Arkansas Tech teams in 1968 and 1970.

I remember most of the Battles of the Ravine between Ouachita and Henderson that I’ve attended through the decades.

I especially remember the road trips with my father to see Ouachita play its AIC foes.

I remember the places where we would eat (before the game if it were an evening kickoff and after the game if it were an afternoon kickoff). What’s college football without food?

Trips to Magnolia to play the Muleriders of Southern State (later Southern Arkansas University) always meant a meal at the Chatterbox downtown. The owner, Mr. Duke, knew my dad and would greet him by name. You could buy copies of the Magnolia Banner-News, the Shreveport Times, the Arkansas Gazette and the Texarkana Gazette right by the register. I loved football, food and newspapers. How much better could it get than this?

Trips to Monticello to play the Boll Weevils of Arkansas A&M (later the University of Arkansas at Monticello) meant a foot-long hot dog at Ray’s or a stop at a catfish restaurant whose name I forgot long ago.

Trips to Conway to play the Bears of ASTC (later SCA and later still UCA) meant a meal at Tommy’s. The owners — Tommy Paladino and Johnny DeSalvo — were quail hunting buddies of my dad. Dad wouldn’t think of eating anywhere else in Conway. It was at Tommy’s where I had my first whole trout and had to be told by my father not to eat the head.

Trips to Searcy to play the Bisons of Harding (it seemed as if those games were always in the afternoon) meant a stop at Anderson’s in Beebe for the Saturday night seafood buffet prior to the drive home to Arkadelphia.

Trips to Russellville to play the Wonder Boys of Arkansas Tech meant fried chicken at the Old South, though we did stray across the street for a few years when there was an AQ Chicken House at Russellville. If Ouachita and Tech were playing an afternoon game in late October or early November, my mom would insist we take Arkansas Highway 7 north from Arkadelphia to Russellville in order to “look at the leaves.” Those trips usually included a stop for breakfast at Sam Ann’s in the heart of the Ouachita National Forest near Hollis.

There were seven football-playing schools in the AIC in those days (I came of age after Hendrix and Ozarks dropped the sport). Six of them — all except for UCA, whose enrollment is now at the point that the Bears are where they belong in the Southland Conference of Division I — are together again in the GAC. Throw in five Oklahoma schools with similar athletic budgets and it’s a good fit; as close to the old AIC as we’re likely to get.

The demise of the AIC came in the 1990s when many of the NAIA schools across the country that played football began moving to NCAA Division II. The athletic directors of the AIC schools couldn’t agree on whether all the schools should move or not. UCA and Henderson forced the issue when they jumped to the Gulf South Conference of NCAA Division II for the 1993-94 school year. That left the AIC with just five institutions that played football — UAM, Southern Arkansas, Arkansas Tech, Harding and Ouachita. They played what some called an “AIC Lite” football schedule in 1993 and 1994.

UAM, Southern Arkansas and Arkansas Tech were admitted to the Gulf South Conference beginning with the 1995-96 school year. The Gulf South wouldn’t admit Ouachita and Harding, the only two private colleges playing football in Arkansas at the time.

Ouachita and Harding wound up in the Lone Star Conference, which already had members in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. Harding and Ouachita finally were admitted to the Gulf South Conference beginning with the 2000-01 school year. UCA left the Gulf South for Division I in 2006.

The GAC was born in the fall of 2011, and the first two football champions have been from Arkadelphia — Ouachita in 2011 and Henderson last year.

The fall of 2012 was a banner one for Division II football programs in the state. Consider these facts:

— Henderson finished the regular season 10-0, the first undefeated, untied regular season in school history. Sophomore quarterback Kevin Rodgers was one of eight finalists for the 2012 Harlon Hill Trophy, which is the Division II version of the Heisman Trophy. During the 2012 season, Rodgers earned GAC Player of the Week honors six times. He threw for more than 300 yards in seven games. He’s on pace to do even better this year.

— Harding finished the regular season 9-1, losing only to Henderson.

— Southern Arkansas finished the regular season 8-2, losing only to Henderson and Harding.

— With its 6-4 record, Ouachita posted its fifth consecutive winning season. Ouachita has the only college football program in the state — at any level — with five consecutive winning seasons.

— Of the four Division II teams with winning records in the state, there was only one loss to a team from outside Arkansas during the regular season.

It’s no wonder that the top four teams in the GAC preseason poll — Henderson, Southern Arkansas, Harding and Ouachita — were all from Arkansas.

Only two of the 11 GAC teams remained undefeated through September of this year — Ouachita and Henderson.

The two new GAC members — Southern Nazarene and Northwestern Oklahoma — finished the month 0-4.

Everyone else beat up on each other.

On Friday afternoon, I’ll embark on my third road trip to Oklahoma in four weeks. My plan is to eat supper at the famous Van’s Pig Stand in Shawnee and spend the night in Oklahoma City before heading west to Weatherford for an afternoon game on Saturday.

On the first two Saturday mornings of the season, I hit the road early for night games in Oklahoma. The first trip was to Bethany to play Southern Nazarene. Lunch was at Ed’s Truck Stop in Sallisaw, where I had the chicken fried steak.

The following Saturday, I hit the road early again to broadcast Ouachita’s game against East Central Oklahoma in Ada. Ouachita had won the previous week. So why change the routine? Once more, we stopped at Ed’s in Sallisaw. Once more, I had the chicken fried steak. We’re establishing some new traditions in this conference.

Whether you’re talking about small college football or chicken fried steak, it’s hard to get too much of a good thing.

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College football: Week 6

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

What’s new on the college football front?

Well, Lane Kiffin is out at USC and our ol’ buddy Crazy Cajun Ed Orgeron is in (at least for now).

Wonder if I will get to hear “Col. Rebel Is Crying” on the radio again? That always makes me laugh.

Up in Fayetteville last Saturday, there were at least a few silver linings in all of those clouds. Alex Collins, for instance, topped 100 yards for the fourth time in five games. Johnny Manziel didn’t pass for as many yards as a lot of Razorback fans had feared he would, going 23 of 30 through the air for 261 yards and two touchdowns.

What was discouraging from an Arkansas standpoint was the fact that the Aggies rushed for 262 yards, averaging six yards per carry.

A&M topped 40 points for the eighth consecutive game, the longest such streak among the FBS schools.

An Aggie team was playing a football game at Fayetteville for the first time since the old Southwest Conference days in 1990. Arkansas leads the all-time series against A&M, 41-26-3. The Hogs are now 0-5 against reigning Heisman Trophy winners, having lost to Doak Walker and SMU in 1949, Matt Leinart and USC in 2005, Tim Tebow and Florida in 2008, Mark Ingram and Alabama in 2010 and Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in 2013.

My longtime friend Kane Webb is now the editor of Louisville magazine. From his post in Kentucky, this native Arkansan still keeps a close eye on the Razorbacks and the rest of the Southeastern Conference. I wanted to share some of his thoughts:

“Having now watched five games of the Bielema era, the phrase that keeps coming to mind is, ‘They’ll be fine.’ This season could slide anywhere from 4-8 to 7-5 depending on breaks, and I imagine some Hog fans will see red at another losing record and rebuilding project. The frustration is understandable. This is the third time since Houston Nutt left that the program effectively has had to start over. That’s a lot of one step forward, two steps back. I’m not sure another fan base has had to endure this kind of nonstop rebuilding. But, like the first year of the Petrino blip, you can see improvement game to game. And that’s what should sate the fans this year.

“It’s remarkable that Arkansas keeps getting burned by ex-coaches who leave the cupboard bare. Nutt. Petrino. Only Danny Ford left his successor something to win with. Clearly, Bielema left some material behind at Wisconsin. Alas, he didn’t inherit a whole lot at Arkansas. While the talent level doesn’t seem as low as when Petrino took over — and maybe part of that was because Petrino’s system demanded a different kind of talent — Bielema is short on depth and skill position players. The two running backs are impressive, though neither has the speed of Darren McFadden or Felix Jones and, because of that, they’ve left some long runs out there.

“The quarterback? I don’t know if he will ever get to that top level. But he’s just a sophomore and now under another coach. So allow him the benefit of the doubt. Even if he doesn’t have all-conference skill, he will develop and improve, especially in a system that’s the same from year to year. Even with a B- quarterback, Arkansas can win — as long as it’s strong everywhere else and the B- quarterback doesn’t make stupid mistakes. Again, though, let’s give the benefit of the doubt. People forget that Bielema had a run of successful quarterbacks at Wisconsin. He has more quarterbacks in the NFL than Petrino. The Hogs need receivers. They need linebackers. They need beef.

“Where Bielema and his staff have really impressed is with basic instruction — that is, their players seem to know where they are supposed to be. They know where to line up and where to go. This is especially evident on defense, and an easy-to-see contrast with years past. The Hogs may give up points and chunks of yards but — this is new — they don’t cave because somebody blew an assignment. Time was, at least once or twice a game, the other team’s star receiver would have a nice 20- to 25-yard cushion to make an easy catch. Not so much anymore. That’s something.”

Interesting thoughts.

Last week’s record was 8-0, making the record for the season 33-6.

Let’s get to the predictions for Week 6:

Florida 24, Arkansas 21 — Florida’s defense is far better than Texas A&M’s defense. Yet the Gators have problems on offense. That likely will add up to a lower-scoring game than we saw in Fayetteville last Saturday and a final margin that’s a bit closer. Florida improved to 3-1 overall and 2-0 in the SEC with a 24-7 victory over a woeful Kentucky team last weekend. The Gators outgained the Wildcats, 402-173. With a break here or there in The Swamp, Arkansas might hang around long enough to have a chance.

McNeese State 30, UCA 27 — Which McNeese State team shows up in Conway on Saturday afternoon? The one that stunned South Florida in the season opener by a score of 53-21 or the one that barely beat a Division II school — West Alabama — by a score of 44-42 two weeks later? The Cowboys started the season 4-0 (throw in wins of 58-14 over UAPB and 43-6 over Weber State) before losing last week by 35 points to Northern Iowa. In this early Southland Conference showdown, McNeese must do battle with a 2-2 Bear team that has had trouble stringing together four quarters of football. UCA beat outmanned Incarnate Word, lost at Colorado after leading in the third quarter, lost at Tennessee-Martin and then edged Missouri State. The Bears have had two weeks to prepare for what should be one of the better games in the FCS this week.

Jackson State 19, UAPB 14 — The Golden Lions needed that open date on the final Saturday of September. UAPB, the defending SWAC champion, has started the season 0-4 with losses to Arkansas State, McNeese State, Alabama State and Alcorn State. Now, UAPB must travel to Mississippi to take on a Jackson State team that is 2-0 at home. Jackson State is 3-2 overall with wins of 30-23 over Alabama State, 35-7 over Texas Southern and 19-14 over Southern University. The losses have been by scores of 34-7 to Tulane in New Orleans and 26-16 to Tennessee State in the Southern Heritage Classic at Memphis.

Southern Arkansas 37, Harding 35 — NCAA Division II football in Arkansas gets a showcase on national television Thursday evening when the CBS Sports Network comes to Magnolia. The network picked a good game to televise since these are quality teams. Harding was 9-1 in the regular season a year ago, losing only to 10-0 Henderson. SAU was 8-2 in the regular season, losing only to Henderson and Harding. SAU is off to a 3-1 start. Harding is 2-1. Both teams were upset on the road in the first week of the season — Southern Arkansas lost at Southeastern Oklahoma, and Harding lost at Southwestern Oklahoma. Since then, SAU has come back to defeat East Central Oklahoma, Southwestern Oklahoma and Northwestern Oklahoma. Harding has defeated Northwestern Oklahoma and Southern Nazarene. In Harding’s 63-21 victory over winless Southern Nazarene, the Bisons had 650 yards of offense with 505 of that coming on the ground. Meanwhile, Mulerider senior running back Mark Johnson set school records for most career points and most career touchdowns in SAU’s 47-14 victory over winless Northwestern Oklahoma. It’s doubtful that anyone will knock off Henderson during the regular season. One thing is certain. The loser of Thursday’s game is out of the running for a share of the Great American Conference crown since the Reddies definitely won’t lose twice. In that sense, it’s a must-win game for both Harding and SAU.

Arkansas Tech 28, UAM 20 — This is a Saturday afternoon battle in Monticello between a pair of 2-2 teams that have improved since last season. Tech, under new head coach Raymond Monica, is coming off a 44-34 loss to Nicholls State of the Southland Conference. UAM lost a conference game last Saturday at Southwestern Oklahoma, 35-17. We’ll know after Saturday which of these two programs has improved the most.

Henderson 72, Northwestern Oklahoma 22 — The Reddies remain ranked No. 8 nationally following a 63-31 victory in Arkadelphia last Saturday against East Central Oklahoma. Henderson trailed 17-14 before scoring 42 consecutive points. The 4-0 Reddies finished with 609 yards of offense. Junior quarterback Kevin Rodgers set a school passing yardage record with 595 yards through the air. He completed 42 of his 50 passes. Northwestern has yet to win a game. This one will be as ugly as Henderson head coach Scott Maxfield chooses to make it.

Ouachita 30, Southwestern Oklahoma 29 — This should be the best of the Saturday games in the GAC. Ouachita is off to a 3-0 start for a third consecutive season after a 45-7 win in Arkadelphia on Saturday over Southeastern Oklahoma. Ouachita’s defense, which returned 10 starters from last year, came up with seven turnovers. Southwestern is 3-1. This game goes to the team whose quarterback — Dustin Stenta at Southwestern and Benson Jordan at Ouachita — has the hottest hand. Southwestern is naming its dressing room after the late Paul Sharp of Little Rock, who died suddenly last fall. Sharp won an NAIA national championship as head coach at the school He had played at Ouachita for the legendary Buddy Benson and later served as an assistant under Benson. Younger brother David Sharp is the longtime Ouachita athletic director.

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