Northeastern Oklahoma A&M Head Coach Dale Patterson told the assembled writers at the SJWCFC Media Day in July he thought his program was a year away from contending for a conference title.
Eight games later, the Golden Norsemen have shown they are well ahead of schedule, going 7-1 with the only loss a double-overtime affair on the road in Tyler.
Now they face their stiffest challenge of the season with a lot on the line on Saturday at 2 p.m. in Miami, Okla. No. 8-ranked NEO (7-1 overall, 4-1 in the SWJCFC) hosts No. 7 Navarro (7-1, 4-1) in a showdown to decide playoff seedings and perhaps the regular season SWJCFC champion.
There is much at stake Saturday, not just across the red River, but also in Kilgore (7-1, 4-1), where the Rangers host a surging Tyler (5-3, 4-2) .
If Navarro and Tyler win, the Bulldogs will have homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, something of a regular occurrence in recent years for Navarro. A Bulldog loss would send them on the road.
“There’s a lot riding on this game and our kids are excited,” said Navarro Coach Brian Mayper. “We’ve been telling them all week just how big of challenge they are going to face this Saturday.”
A veteran coach who fits snuggly among the top tier of NEO’s legendary coaches, Patterson left the program in the mid-2000s to join the administrative football staff at Oklahoma State. The Golden Norse floundered during his absence, never making the playoffs. When Patterson returned last fall, the change in the program was evident almost immediately. Although NEO finished 3-6, losing all its conference games, the Golden Norse were competitive in almost every game, a switch from the recent past.
A Patterson-led NEO is always well-coached and musters the most of its athletes. He usually has at least one dynamic offensive player and a defense that confuses opposing offenses with a variety of schemes and blitz packages.
“You know that (Patterson’s) teams are going to throw the ball effectively and have the ability to run well,” Mayper said. “They are a well-coached team and that is evident in how successful they’ve been this season.”
The offensive dynamo for NEO in 2012 has been quarterback Clayton Mitchem, a 6-2, 190-pound sophomore from Sprio, Okla., who has avoided injuries that plagued him last season. Mitchem has completed a league-best 67.1 percent of his passes for 1,441 yards and 14 TDs compared to only three interceptions.
Michael Thompson, whose claim to fame earlier this season was a pair of 95-yard kickoff returns for TDs against Tyler, has developed into Mitchem’s go-to receiver late this season. Thompson has at least one receiving TD in the last four games and is averaging a league-best 22.4 yards per catch.
“(NEO) is pretty sound on offense and they’ve got some guys who run great routes on the outside,” Mayper said. “(Mitchem) is throwing the ball better than anybody in the league right now.
“(Patterson) does a lot scheme-wise that puts their offense in a position to be successful. We’ve got to be sound fundamentally on defense or they are going to break a big one on us.”
That’s where the Navarro running game comes into play on Saturday. The nation’s leading rushing team at 314.9 yards per game, Navarro needs to shorten the game by controlling the clock and keeping Mitchem off the field. Running back Traylon Shead is only 107 yards shy of a 1,000-yard season.
“The way we played on offense against Hutchinson, Tyler and Cisco is how we need to start the game Saturday,” Mayper said. “Our running game helps open up the passing game. The other team expects us to run the ball, but if we can loosen up the defense, it will open things for (quarterback) Stump (Godfrey).
“At the same time, we cannot turn the ball over. Fortunately, when we’ve turned the ball over this season, our defense has risen to the occasion. We just cannot get behind and hope for our defense to come up with a big play to keep us in the game.”
NEO’s defense has recorded a league-high 44 sacks this season, led by defensive end Jaiari Dunaway’s 9.5 sacks for minus-52 yards. Dunaway also has a team-high six tackles for loss.
“They twist guys or drop their ends, anything to throw your counts off,” Mayper said. “They try to catch you with guys in the wrong position so they somebody go untouched through a hole and straight to your quarterback. At the same time, if we catch them in a stunt, it could be off to the races.”
Godfrey is ready for the challenge of keeping the turnovers down and moving the Bulldog defense down the field briskly and efficiently. Although he has completed only 45.4 percent of his passes and has had games when interceptions came in bunches, Godfrey is confident heading into this week’s critical game.
“At this point of the year, we all have to play together and lean on each other,” the Gilmer sophomore said. “Execution is the biggest thing we have to be concerned with on offense. The talent is there to make plays, but we must execute. When one person messes up, everything gets thrown out of sync.”
“Against the really good teams in the conference, you can’t have a lot of that. That’s why we have to be in sync and focused. When we do that, we are capable of beating anybody.”
Navarro at Northeastern
Saturday, 2 p.m.
In Miami, Okla.
Radio: KAND 1340 AM
Records: 7th-ranked Navarro (7-1 overall, 4-1 in SWJCFC) vs. NEO (7-1, 4-1)
Recent History: Navarro has won the last five meetings between the two teams by a combined 238-71, including last year’s 47-14 win in Corsicana
Key Players: Navarro: QB Stump Godfrey, RB Traylon Shead, WR-KR Tony Drake, TE Gerard Shillow, RB Tyler Middleton, LB D.J. Simon, RB Tim Wright, DE Andre Ross, T Aleon Calhoun, T Zach Fondal, G Mitchell Bell, DT Arnold Blackmon, DE Michael Jolivet, C John Studdard, DT Terrell Brooks. NEO: QB Clayton Mitchem, RB Gerald Howse, WR-KR Michael Thompson, WR Kameron Doolittle, K Kevin King, DE Jaiari Dunaway, S Devron Moore.
Game Notes: Dunaway is a disruptive forced from the edge, but it has been SS Moore who has been the catalyst the last two weeks for the NEO defense. Moore has 4 interceptions for 120 yards in returns in a pair of Golden Norse wins . . . Howse is still second in the league in rushing behind Shead (893-626), but he production has tapered after a fast start. Howse averaged 90.4 yards per game and had 9 TDs through five weeks. In his last three games, Howse is averaged only 58 yards and has one score . . . Navarro leads the NJCAA in rushing yards per game (314.9) and is also tops in third-down conversions (better than 71 percent) . . . Navarro is still hampered by injuries in several areas. RB Tim Wright may be out with a recurring hamstring issue. CB Sherman Gilbert is likely gone with an ankle injury . . . Shead committed early this week to SMU. He will join the Ponies in January after starting his career out of Cayuga at the University of Texas. Shead currently leads the conference in rushing (893 yards) and scoring (78 points).
— Rob Ludwig