It’s easy to draw parallels between the East Central University football program, pre-2010, and the one Don Carthel found when he arrived in Canyon, Texas, to become the head coach at West Texas A&M back in 2005.
Like Tim McCarty — who returned to ECU early in 2009 for his second tour as coach of the Tigers — Carthel inherited a team that was almost an afterthought to anyone other than its most avid fans.
Picked to finish last in the rugged Lone Star Conference South Division, Carthel’s first Buffalo squad went 10-1 and won the school’s first-ever South title; McCarty’s 2010 Tigers, meanwhile, were picked last in the LSC North in preseason but went 5-1 against North opponents, claimed their school’s first-ever division crown and, along the way, probably earned McCarty North Coach of the Year honors.
Saturday afternoon (kickoff 1 p.m.), Carthel’s Buffaloes — winners of 58 of 75 games and three South Division titles since he arrived on campus — will host McCarty’s up-and-coming Tigers — winners of just 10 games between 2005 and 2009 — in a regular-season finale that, while having no impact on divisional races, will show just how far the league’s latest surprise team has come. It will also be the final LSC game for ECU, which will join fellow North Division members Southwestern and Southeastern and six Arkansas schools in a new conference in 2011.
“We’re playing for that sixth win ... that would be a good win,” said McCarty, whose young squad edged Texas A&M-Commerce, 36-33, Saturday to even its overall record at 5-5 after an 0-3 start to the season. “We’re still looking at this game as a different arena we can jump into as a program, and we feel like with good execution that’s something we can do.
“It should be a fun game,” he added. “We’ve got a great opportunity to become better, and that’s where our focus is this week — to make this program better.”
McCarty said beating a team like West Texas (7-3 and ranked No. 19 in Division II) on the road would simply be one last shock to the system of an LSC establishment that regarded ECU — which has never won more than six games in 17 seasons in Division II (including 14 in the LSC) — as a weak sister for years.
“To be a good team you have to win games like this,” he noted. “That’s where we’re going, and at some point we’re going to have to win that kind of game to take the next step. With where our program is right now, this is a good game to take into the offseason.
“We’ve played (WTAMU) twice since I’ve been at ECU and I’m 1-1 against them (ECU scored a 13-6 win in McCarty’s first season at the school in 2004 and WTAMU won, 37-6, in Carthel’s first season in 2005),” McCarty said. “My first win as a head coach at East Central was against West Texas. Our defensive coordinator, Justin Deason, was out there before he came here (before the 2009 season). They had the same philsophy (in 2005) that we do now. They had a lot of turmoil in that program, and they have evolved their scheme and they’ve fine-tuned their recruiting.”
McCarty and his staff parlayed an outstanding recruiting class and some talented holdovers from a 2009 squad that finished 0-11 but showed solid improvement late in the season into a team that steadily matured into a force in the LSC North by season’s end. Although the Tigers finished in a tie with Northeastern for the North crown, a 48-21 win over the RiverHawks at Norris Field in Week 9 established ECU as the cream of the division.
Last week, the Tigers built a 24-7 lead early in the third quarter before two turnovers fueled a Commerce rally that tied the score at 33-all with less than a minute to play. But junior quarterback Tyler Vanderzee — who finished with a school-record 435 yards passing — engineered a lightning-quick, three-play drive to set up a Matt Berrey 37-yard field goal with a second left that finally sealed ECU’s most important victory in 17 years.
“One thing we bring out of that game was a continued growth on the offensive side of the ball,” said McCarty, whose club piled up a season-high 530 yards against the Lions. “We’ve had some opportunities this year that we didn’t take advantage of; on the flip side, you always want turnovers (the ECU defense leads the LSC in takeaways). This past week, we didn’t get the turnovers, but we were still able to do some things.
“The offense was able to drive the ball Saturday, which was a good thing, and our defense played outstanding Saturday,” he added. “We just didn’t get the turnovers.”
In addition to the impact to each team’s won-lost record, Saturday’s game will feature some intriguing match-ups, both from a team and individual standpoint.
The Buffaloes will send the LSC’s No. 1 offense (at 508 yards per game) and No. 2 scoring offense (41.7 points per game) against an ECU defense that, in addition to being the league’s best at forcing turnovers, also ranks fifth in overall defense (and No. 1 in the North) and scoring defense (26.2 points per game) and has given up an average of less than 315 yards in its last seven games.
WTAMU will also pit the league’s top passing offense (397.5 yards per game) — led by senior quarterback Taylor Harris, the LSC leader in passing yardage and total offense — against an ECU defense that is No. 1 in the LSC in interceptions with 17 and has the league’s co-leader in thefts (with six) in junior cornerback Dontae Smith.
The Tigers and Buffs are easily 1-2 in the LSC in sacks this season (ECU leads, 30-29), and the league’s two sacks leaders — ECU sophomore defensive end Armonty Bryant (with 10.5) and WTAMU’s Shad Bachtal (with eight) will also be on the same field for the first time this season.
ECU’s resurgent offense (which has gained a total of 975 yards the past two weeks) will be severely tested by a Buff defense that ranks third in the LSC in yards allowed and fourth in points allowed.
“There’s no question that they’re a good football team,” McCarty said of the Buffs, who blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead in a 41-34 loss to second-ranked Abilene Christian last week. They don’t have a lot of weaknesses.”
ECU also faced ACU this year, absorbing a 47-7 road loss in Week 3 in the only game all season in which the Tigers didn’t go into the fourth quarter with a chance to win.
“We’re not that team any more,” McCarty said. “The reason is that we’ve got some confidence now. When we played Abilene Christian, we were still in that 16-game losing streak (which ended the next with a 23-0 victory over Southwestern). This team has had pressure in every game this year, and I think after last week a lot of that pressure is off their back.
“We respect West Texas, but we know we’re a team on the rise,” he said. “We’ve had some good performances on offenses and some great performances on defense, but we’re struggling with consistency. This game is just another chapter in the book as we continue this journey to turn this program around.”