Tech Faces Supreme Challenge at UNA

The good news is that the Arkansas Tech Wonder Boys should have no trouble tracing the route to their destination this Saturday. After all, it will be the third time in the last 12 months that they have played a game at Braly Municipal Stadium in Florence, Ala. The bad news is that when they arrive, the undefeated and to this point unchallenged North Alabama Lions will be waiting. The Wonder Boys (2-2 overall, 1-1 Gulf South Conference) will try to stun the NCAA Division II football world when they face nationally third-ranked North Alabama (4-0, 1-0) for a 6 p.m. league contest on Saturday. Radio station KWKK 100.9 FM will have the play-by-play call in the Arkansas River Valley. Click here to access an Internet stream of the broadcast.

The Lions have outscored their first four opponents 160-26, and UNA has won all four of those games by at least 17 points. And while North Alabama is impressive in every phase of the game, it is on defense where the Lions are downright scary. UNA has only allowed three points after halftime all season. The Lions rank second in NCAA Division II in both scoring defense (6.5 points per game) and rushing defense (31.5 yards allowed per game). They are eighth in the country in total defense (232.8 yards allowed per game). “I think it’s very possible that (North Alabama) is better on defense than it was a year ago,” said Arkansas Tech head coach Steve Mullins. “I think their secondary is faster than it was last year. They have a new defensive coordinator, and they don’t pressure as much as they did. This year they are making people earn their way down the field a little more, and they’ve been able to create turnovers. “They are a phenomenal team,” continued Mullins. “As you look at them from top to bottom, I think they are a better team than they were a year ago.” North Alabama is the defending GSC champion. The Lions were 11-2 overall last season and they reached the quarterfinal round of the 2009 NCAA Division II Playoffs. Two of those 11 wins came against Arkansas Tech. North Alabama defeated the Wonder Boys 42-17 in the regular season and 41-28 in the second round of the NCAA Division II Playoffs, both times at the Lions’ home in Florence. The Lions have won the last seven meetings between the two programs, and that is indicative of a larger trend. North Alabama has won 26 consecutive games against teams from the state of Arkansas. UNA has extended that streak under second-year head coach Terry Bowden by attracting a mind-boggling collection of talent.

The Lions had 25 NCAA Division I transfers on their roster in 2009. North Alabama took it easy on the GSC this year and only brought in 24 D-I transfers, including several from traditional major college powers such as Tennessee, Florida State, Alabama, Miami, Florida and Texas. “The reason that you compete is because anything can happen,” said Mullins. “You see upsets all the time, and it’s always a great joy and a pleasure to be a part of that. As you go through that list (of transfers), it’s very impressive. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. Everything that Coach Bowden does is within the Division II rules.

“That’s how they’ve chosen to build their program,” continued Mullins. “They do a great job and their kids play hard. There are no complaints from our end. That’s just the path they’ve gone down, and obviously they’ve had a lot of success. We’ve just got to bow up and get ready to play.” Arkansas Tech snapped a two-game losing streak with a 30-25 win at Arkansas-Monticello last Saturday. The Wonder Boys scored two defensive touchdowns and redshirt freshman quarterback Rico Keller rushed for 209 yards in the victory.

Keller was subsequently named GSC offensive player of the week. His 209 rushing yards against UAM are the most by any GSC player in a game this season, and it marked the sixth-highest single-game rushing total by a Wonder Boy all-time.

Only Travis Horn (288 yards vs. Central Arkansas in 2001), Robert Marley (259 yards vs. Ouachita Baptist in 1965), Eddie Meador (239 yards vs. Hendrix in 1958), Jack Simpson (235 yards vs. Ouachita Baptist in 1950) and Marcus Godfrey (225 yards vs. West Alabama in 2002) have ever rushed for more yards in a game for Arkansas Tech.

“We are making progress,” said Mullins. “This week we face one of the best NCAA Division II football teams I’ve ever seen, and we need to take another step forward. We need to be aggressive, confident and let it loose.”