RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. (ATU) – Arkansas Tech Football begins its final stretch of the 2010 season here Saturday with a Gulf South Conference contest against 10th-ranked Valdosta State. Kickoff for Saturday's game is set for 2 p.m. in Thone Stadium at Buerkle Field.
Tech, who enters Saturday's game sporting a 3-5 overall record and a 2-4 mark in the GSC following its 49-26 loss last Saturday at West Alabama, needs to win its final three games to secure its seventh consecutive non-losing season and its seventh winning season since 1997. Tech's last losing season came in 2003 when the Wonder Boys finished with a 5-6 overall record.
"It has been a bunch of years since we've had a losing season and we do have to win them all the rest of way for a winning season," Tech Head Football Coach and Athletic Director Steve Mullins said. "We have some challenges ahead of us with Valdosta State."
While Tech enters the game looking to end the season on a positive note, the Blazers, who are 6-1 overall and 4-1 in the GSC, are currently tied for second place in the GSC standings with West Alabama and are a half-game back of Delta State (7-1 overall, 5-1 GSC) for first place with three weeks remaining in the regular season.
One of the big keys to the Blazers season has been their ability to play close games as five of their seven contests have been decided by five points or less, including four of their six victories. Last Saturday, VSU earned a 21-17 home win over Arkansas-Monticello, which followed its 5-0 win on Oct. 14 at then third-ranked North Alabama.
"VSU is a very solid football team. As you look at them, they are very sound on defense and have done a good job of protecting the football," the Tech coach said. "Offensively, they do enough to win games and have a solid kicking game."
Saturday's game could come down to a defensive battle as both team's offenses rank in the lower half of the latest GSC statistics, while their defense are both ranked in the Top 5 in the league and Top 50 nationally. Tech's defense is second in the league and sixth nationally in rushing defense (66.6 yards per game) and is fifth in the league in total defense (322.3 yards per game), while VSU is second in the GSC and 10th nationally in scoring defense (14.6 points per game), fourth in the league and 13th nationally in rushing defense (83.6 yards per game) and is third in the league in total defense (309.0 yards per game).
When talking about the Blazers defense, one name that gets mentioned a lot is senior linebacker Larry Dean. Dean, who has had two games this season with 19 tackles, leads the GSC and is second nationally in tackles per game (13.3) and he has recorded five tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks and three quarterback hurries. In addition to Dean, senior cornerback Stevie Harden leads the GSC with five interceptions, including two that have been returned for score and senior defensive end Kier Moore has recorded 6.0 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks on the season.
"Dean is a remarkable player and their inside guys are very strong and do a great job of creating anchor points in the defensive line," added the 14th-year Tech coach, who is the second winningest active coach in the GSC with 88 victories.
On offense, VSU is averaging 330.4 yards per game, including averaging 136.4 rushing yards per contest, which is fourth in the latest GSC statistics. The Blazers play two and at times this season have used three different quarterbacks, with freshman Brett Whitmire and junior Austen Roberts getting a majority of the snaps under center. In addition to the quarterbacks, three VSU running backs have each gained over 200 yards this season.
Tech enters Saturday's game fresh off its best offensive performance of the season against West Alabama. In the loss to the Tigers, Tech's offense had season-highs in yards (442), offensive plays (83), first downs (27), third-down conversions (9-of-17) and held a 20 minute advantage in time of possession, but committed five turnovers, of which two led directly to scores and a third one led to another score. In addition, Tech also gave up a score on failed execution of an onside kick.
"We played well enough offensively last week to win the game, but once again we refused to protect the football like we should," said Mullins, who is 49-20 as Tech's coach in home games. "VSU is a team that is going to force turnovers and make you earn your way down the field and so far this season we have not proven we can do that offensively."
Through eight games this season, Tech has committed 32 turnovers, including throwing 20 interceptions, while their defense has forced 17 turnovers, including returning four of those for scores.
One area that Tech has excelled in most of this season is on kickoff returns as sophomore running back Tavin Davis (Memphis, Tenn.) is averaging a GSC-leading 27.7 yards per return, while junior receiver Draper Demouchet (Breaux Bridge, La.) is averaging nearly 22 yards per kickoff return. As a team, Tech is third in the league in both kickoff (21.6 yards per return) and punt returns (14.6 yards per return) and is fourth in the league in punting (33.8 yards per punt.
"We have got to hold our own in the special teams this weekend," Mullins added.
Saturday's match-up will be the 10th all-time meeting in the series dating to 1995. VSU leads the all-time series, 8-1 and the Blazers have won four straight games, including picking up a 28-27 win in the team's last meeting in Russellville in 2007, since Tech's one and only victory in the series, a 21-14 win in 1999 in Russellville.
Following Saturday's game, Tech will conclude the GSC portion of its 2010 schedule on Saturday, Nov. 6 at Harding. Kickoff is slated for 2 p.m. at First Security Stadium in Searcy, Ark.