The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Next stop: Lions' den


September 18, 2019

PORTALES — After beating Missouri S&T 35-28 in the final five minutes and Colorado Mesa 44-37 in overtime, Eastern New Mexico’s football team would probably like a little less drama when visiting Texas A&M Commerce in Week 3.

That, however, would likely be wishful thinking when the Greyhounds play their Lone Star Conference opener Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Commerce, Texas (6 p.m. Central Daylight Time, 5 p.m. MDT).

A&M-Commerce has won the NCAA Division II championship as recently as 2017. The Lions made it to last year’s second round, beating Minnesota-Duluth 33-17 before falling to Tarleton State 34-28.

This year’s Lions have a new head coach, as Colby Carthel — the man who guided them to that ’17 national title and was last season’s Lone Star Conference Coach of the Year — left in the offseason to take Stephen F. Austin’s head-coaching job. His replacement at Commerce is David Bailiff, who was Rice’s head coach from 2007-17.

Under Bailiff so far, the Lions are 2-0 and have looked pretty solid getting there, which hasn’t surprised ENMU head coach Kelley Lee one bit.

“They’re always really good,” Lee said. “They have a new coaching staff, but not much has changed.”

At least not as far as a winning tradition goes. Philosophy-wise, maybe a little.

“They’re running different schemes,” Lee said. “Defensively it’s more similar. ... Offensively it’s a new identity. They’re under center more than they were in the past and they’re making an effort to run the ball more. But there are a lot of players you remember from the last few years and from their national championship run.”

After walloping Seleccion Nuevo Leon 83-0 in its 2019 opener, A&M Commerce had some drama of its own last week when visiting Western Oregon — blowing a 10-0 lead, then rallying from 13-10 down, then squandering a 20-13 edge before finally battling back from a 27-20 deficit to score two fourth-quarter touchdowns and prevail 34-27.

E.J. Thompson was the hero, scoring from a yard out with 8:22 remaining in the fourth, then rushing for the five-yard, game-winning touchdown with 5:59 to go.

Thompson wound up with three touchdowns in all, having also scored on a nine-yard run in the second quarter, which helped Commerce take that 10-0 lead. He rushed for 81 yards on the day.

Thompson is obviously a player the Greyhounds defense will have to contain. But if they look too much to the ground, they may find themselves scorched through the air. Last weekend in Monmouth, Oregon, A&M Commerce quarterback Miklo Smalls completed an efficient 23-of-31 (74 percent) for 235 yards and a touchdown. He spread it around, connecting with eight different receivers in the Lions’ victory, including Chance Cooper (team-high five catches) and Ryan Stokes (team-best 60 receiving yards).

Eastern’s defense could have its hands full, but the Hounds’ offense has shown the potential to outscore opponents’ offenses if necessary, as evidenced by their 79 total points and 1,064 total yards in their first two games. Greyhounds senior running back Paul Terry has already rushed for 367 yards and four touchdowns.

And if the Lions’ defense is somehow able to shut or slow Terry and the other Greyhound running backs down, Eastern’s redshirt senior quarterback Wyatt Strand is a dangerous passing and rushing option. Last week, in fact, he rushed six yards for the game-winner in Eastern’s seven-point overtime win.

Last year’s Eastern/A&M Commerce game was a little more defensive-minded, with Commerce winning 21-11 at Greyhound Stadium. It could be surprising, though, if Saturday’s rematch doesn’t fall more in the offense aplenty category.

Whatever the score, for Eastern to win Lee says it will probably come down to some basics on both sides of the ball.

“I think we’ll have to eliminate turnovers, win the turnover battle,” he said. “And I think we’re going to need to get scores in the red zone. And if they get in the red zone, we’ll have to hold them to field goals. I think those are two big keys.”


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