GAC Title, NCAA Playoffs Berth On the Line

Arkansas Tech University has an opportunity this weekend to join the fraternity of football programs that have won a Great American Conference championship.

The Wonder Boys’ potential initiation into that group will involve significant input from the three current members of the club.

Arkansas Tech (8-2 overall, 8-2 GAC) will host defending GAC champion Harding University (7-3, 7-3) for a 2 p.m. regular season finale at Thone Stadium at Buerkle Field in Russellville.

Tickets ($10 adults/$5 senior citizens and students) will be available at the stadium ticket office on game day. Admission will be free with a valid ATU identification card. Party at the Plaza will begin outside the stadium on Centennial Plaza at noon.

Meanwhile, the two programs that won the first five GAC football titles — 2011 and 2014 champion Ouachita Baptist University (8-2, 8-2) and 2012, 2013 and 2015 champion Henderson State University (6-4, 6-4) will play a 1 p.m. contest at Cliff Harris Stadium in Arkadelphia.

An ATU win and an OBU loss would make the Wonder Boys outright GAC champions, while the inverse would make the Tigers outright GAC champions. Wins by both of those teams would make them co-champions. Harding could forge a tri-champions scenario with a win over Tech and a Ouachita loss to Henderson State in the Battle of the Ravine.

Add in the possibility of NCAA Division II Playoffs berths — OBU is fifth, Tech is seventh and Harding is eighth in the NCAA Division II Super Region 3 rankings, and only seven teams from the region will go to the playoffs — and it would be difficult to craft a more intriguing script to end the regular season.

“Everything started when we got back in January,” said Raymond Monica, ATU head coach. “We jumped into workouts, early morning lifting and early morning running, and then we went into spring ball early. I really didn’t like the way we finished the season (in 2016). These guys worked extremely hard. They remember the days out early in the morning when it was cold as it could be. We put a lot of time and effort on that field.”

The Wonder Boys have won four consecutive games, including a 48-10 victory over Southeastern Oklahoma State University last Saturday. ATU rushed for 390 yards against the Savage Storm, its highest single-game output in that category since rushing for 469 yards against Southern Nazarene University on Sept. 3, 2015.

Harding enters this weekend No. 1 in the GAC in rush defense (111.3 yards allowed per game). The Bisons limited Arkansas Tech to a season-low 14 rushing yards in a 42-7 win over the Wonder Boys last season in Searcy.

The difference in 2017 could be Arkansas Tech’s improved proficiency in the forward pass. Tech senior quarterback Ty Reasnor ranks among the top four quarterbacks in the GAC in passing yardage (211.4 per game) and touchdown passes (18) this season.

As a result, the Wonder Boys have a balanced offensive attack (239.4 rushing yards and 213.9 passing yards per game) that is on pace to break the school record for scoring offense at 43 points per game.

“The offensive line is playing well right now,” said Monica. “We’ve had some injuries and shuffled some things around. I’m really proud of those guys up front, and big run plays are because of second effort…getting blocks downfield from the offensive line and wide outs. Those are the ones that make it pop.”

Harding opened defense of its GAC title with three consecutive losses to begin the 2017 season. The Bisons bounced back with wins over Oklahoma Baptist University and the University of Arkansas-Monticello before notching a 31-28 win over Ouachita Baptist on Oct. 7.

Since then, Harding has outscored its last four opponents by a combined margin of 162-16 to build the longest active winning streak in the conference.

The Bisons utilize a triple option offensive attack that leads NCAA Division II in rushing (361 yards per game).

“I still think (Harding) runs the triple option as well as anyone in the country, and I’m talking all levels…Division I, FCS, Division II,” said Monica. “They know the answers to what you give them, and they know how to attack what you’re doing defensively.”

Arkansas Tech is pursuing the 19th conference championship in the 103-season history of its football program. The Wonder Boys won Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference titles in 1931, 1935, 1939, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1954, 1958, 1960, 1961, 1964, 1968, 1970, 1971 and 1994. They won the Gulf South Conference title in 1999.

ATU is attempting to reach the NCAA Division II Playoffs for the fourth time in program history. The Wonder Boys’ previous appearances came in 1999, 2004 and 2009. Tech reached the NAIA National Playoffs in 1971 and 1994.

Live coverage of the ATU-HU game will be available from radio station KCJC 102.3 FM and www.arkansastechsports.com.

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