Every year and in every conference, there are a handful of games early in the college football season that serve to identify the teams that are true title contenders.
In 2016 and in the Great American Conference, one of those games will be played at Wilkins Stadium in Magnolia on Saturday, Sept. 24, when Arkansas Tech University (2-1 overall, 2-1 GAC) and Southern Arkansas University (2-1, 2-1) conduct their 80th all-time meeting.
Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. Radio station KCJC 102.3 FM and www.arkansastechsports.com will have live coverage.
The Wonder Boys and the Muleriders are both one game behind GAC front runners Henderson State University and Harding University. The Reddies and the Bisons are the only unbeaten teams in the league after three weeks of play.
In order for his team to have an opportunity to keep pace with a win at SAU, Arkansas Tech head coach Raymond Monica knows the Wonder Boys must be attentive to detail.
“Kickoff return and punt return are two areas where we’ve placed a lot of emphasis to try to improve, and I feel like after three games we have,” said Monica. “When you have two teams that are very similar, it comes down to kicking game, turnovers and penalties. I really believe this conference is so equal each and every week that the team that makes the fewest mistakes is going to win the football game.”
The Wonder Boys remained unbeaten at home in 2016 last Saturday with a 38-31 victory over the University of Arkansas-Monticello. A pair of senior linebackers figured prominently in Tech’s triumph. Seth Culp made 15 tackles and broke up a Boll Weevil fourth-down pass in the final 90 seconds to seal the win, while D’Vonta Derricott finished with 11 tackles.
“Seth has gotten better and better,” said Monica. “It’s taken a little bit to get to this point. There are still things he needs to improve upon. D’Vonta hasn’t been with us that long and he’s still trying to learn the defense. Since Nick Akins got hurt he has stepped up in that role and he’s going to play more.”
Arkansas Tech junior quarterback Ty Reasnor passed for a season-high 330 yards against UAM. He threw touchdown passes of 81 yards to freshman tailback Justin Bailey and 56 yards to junior wide receiver Jabyes Cross. Reasnor also connected with sophomore halfback Chris Eastburn on a 46-yard pass that set up a 2-yard touchdown run by sophomore Bryan Allen.
“We had some big, explosive plays on offense,” said Monica. “Anytime you have those plays in the passing game, you start backing up opposing defenses and making them worry about some different things that can happen. But this week against SAU, they are going to put a lot of people in the box and we’ll still have to be able to run the football when we need to.”
The home team has won the last eight meetings between Arkansas Tech and Southern Arkansas. The Wonder Boys have not won at Wilkins Stadium since defeating the Muleriders 36-29 on Oct. 26, 2006, for the 500th victory in Arkansas Tech football history.
In order to reverse that trend, Monica said the Wonder Boys must continue the progress they made one week ago in reducing penalties. Arkansas Tech has been the most penalized team in the GAC so far this season (93.7 yards per game), while Southern Arkansas has been the least penalized team in the conference in 2016 (50.3 yards per game).
“I thought last week was better, but we still had a couple of critical mistakes,” said Monica. “We had a personal foul and we had a block in the back after a turnover. Those things you have to be able to correct. You’re going to get some holding calls, but we can’t shoot ourselves in the foot with penalties and when we stop people we can’t do anything foolish to give them a first down.”