By Dave Wagner
This hasn’t been the kind of year Dennis Darnell expected.
In the spring, the East Central football coach thought the Ada, Okla.-based Tigers were looking at a decent season. By the start of practice in August, though, he said ECU had lost around 16 players — including 10 potential starters — to injuries, disciplinary dismissals and academics.
The result has been an 0-4 start for the Tigers as they prepare to face Eastern New Mexico University in a 6 p.m. Lone Star Conference crossover game on Saturday at Blackwater Draw.
“We’re not the football team I thought we’d be from a personnel standpoint,” said Darnell, in his fifth season at the helm.
Meantime, the Greyhounds are coming off a 24-10 road win last week over ECU’s North Division rival, Northeastern State. At 3-0, they appear to be rounding into form.
Still, veteran ENMU coach Bud Elliott said the Tigers are dangerous, and he expects them to react like a wounded animal.
“I think they’ll come in here really hungry,” said Elliott, whose team escaped Ada last season with a 35-29 victory despite giving up more than 500 total yards. “We’ve talked to our players all week long that it’s not going to be an (easy) game.”
ECU has been beaten by quality foes on the road in Southwest Missouri State, a Division I-AA program, and Emporia State. At home, the Tigers had a chance to beat Harding, losing 22-19, and also lost last week to Texas A&M-Commerce 24-6.
They’ve been outscored 122-28 this season.
“We’ve played well at times this year,” Darnell said. “We’ve played a difficult schedule, but we’ve played reasonably well in every game except Southwest Missouri (a 48-0 loss).
“Against Commerce and Harding, I think if we win the turnover battle, we could’ve won both of those games.”
The coach’s son, senior quarterback Pete Darnell, is back after directing the Tigers’ potent attack last year. The difference, his father said, is that he doesn’t have a lot of the same players around him.
That doesn’t mean ECU’s cause is hopeless.
“The big thing we have to do is take care of the football,” Dennis Darnell said. “We just haven’t done that so far.”
Elliott said the Hounds are a little beat up this week, noting they will have only two of their top four cornerbacks available to try to play against what he expects might be an aerial show.
Senior Eric Mims (dislocated shoulder) returned to practice this week after missing two games, Elliott said, but probably won’t be available until next week’s LSC South Division opener at Abilene Christian. And senior Randy Johnson sustained a torn MCL on kickoff coverage at Northeastern and is likely out four weeks, if not more.
That leaves junior Antonio Wiley and sophomore Corey White as the starters. They will be backed up by senior Rob Arnold, who played mainly safety last year but has not seen action so far this fall due to shoulder problems.
Standout senior wide receiver Cale Sanders, who saw only limited duty earlier this season, may have surgery to deal with a groin injury “with the possibility that we can get him back in three or four weeks,” Elliott said.
Junior offensive tackle Aaron Payne, who injured a knee on the first series of the season opener at Adams State, may be ready for some limited duty this week, Elliott said. If not, he should be back for the ACU game.
“He’s really done a great job with his rehab,” Elliott said.