Ridley, DSU ‘fired up’ for home opener with UNA

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 30, 2004

CLEVELAND &045; Things have gotten a bit personal.

Today’s Delta State home opener against No. 5-ranked North Alabama is not merely about jockeying for the top spot in the Gulf South Conference or getting in solid position to qualify for the Division II playoffs.

In three big games this season and last season, the Statesmen are winless.

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Today’s 6 p.m. kickoff at Parker Field definitely qualifies as a big game. It’s the Statesmen’s home opener, and it doesn’t get much bigger than this.

&uot;We’re fired up and ready to go,&uot; said receiver Chad Ridley, the former Trinity Episcopal standout. &uot;We’ve got to win this one. If we lose, we’re hoping and wishing somebody else loses. We’re 0-3 in big game to get us to the playoffs, and we’ve got to get that monkey off our backs. I think we’re really a lot more focused this week.&uot;

So the Statesmen, ranked 16th in the latest AFCA poll, get a chance to do that today against a UNA squad that knows plenty about big games. The Lions lost in the Division II semifinals last year at North Dakota and won three national championships in the 1990s.

In fact, no team in Division II has a better postseason record in school history than UNA.

&uot;It doesn’t get any bigger than this,&uot; DSU head coach Rick Rhoades said. &uot;We should have a good crowd. It’s a very meaningful game. We’ve just got to play. Our guys aren’t stupid &045; they know who we’re playing at what’s at stake.&uot;

For the returners from last year, it’s a matter of unfinished business. The Statesmen made a run last year during Ridley’s red-shirt freshman season but got upended in critical games against Valdosta State and Southern Arkansas. Those defeats derailed what was starting to be a promising season after a 4-7 campaign in 2002.

Both VSU and Southern Ark got into the playoffs, along with UNA. Delta State, however, stayed home.

Then came the season-opener three weeks ago at North Dakota, last year’s national runner-up. The Statesmen lost in Bismarck to the second-ranked Sioux, 28-19.

&uot;North Dakota is the No. 1 team in the nation,&uot; Ridley said. &uot;When we went up there, we had to see how good we were. We’re good enough to beat them, but we had first-game jitters. Last week with West Alabama, they were a good ball club, but we looked like we clicked pretty good and got our job done. This week is going to be a big challenge.&uot;

Ridley sparked the Statesmen last week by returning the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown and later adding another score on a 3-yard run. The former Trinity quarterback is playing the H-back position in the offense, a spot that can call for either run plays or pass plays.

A key cog in the offense is wide receiver Ellis Debrow, a Conerly Trophy candidate and 2003 All-American who already has 16 catches for 296 yards in just two games, along with sophomore quarterback Scott Eyster.

&uot;With our offense, we got out and do our thing,&uot; Ridley said. &uot;If Ellis is doing his job, I’m doing my job and we’re doing our job, Scott is going to get us the ball. They can’t double-team Ellis because we have three other very good receivers. We keep the pressure off Ellis.&uot;

Said Rhoades: &uot;It’s all ahead of him. He’s working and maturing. He’s matured really, really a lot.&uot;

The Statesmen’s offense will be paramount today, but it’ll be matched up against a similar system. Rhoades noted the Lions’ offense isn’t quite the vertical attack as that of DSU’s, but the game may feature plenty of passes.

&uot;It’ll be the team that makes the least mistakes,&uot; Ridley said. &uot;A lot of UNA’s scores came off other teams’ mistakes. We’ve got to go in this game perfect, pretty much. We’re 0-3 in big games, and we always find a way to mess that up. But we’re looking real good this week.&uot;

Delta State’s defense held tight last week by holding West Alabama to just 244 yards total offense. It’s a unit that is without former Trinity Episcopal linebacker Ivan Nastally, who signed with DSU but is on red-shirt after injuring his neck during a high school all-star game over the summer.

Also, UNA head coach Mark Hudspeth is a former DSU offensive coordinator and standout player. Two members of his staff also have connections to Delta State.

&uot;We hope to mix it up and give them a lot of different looks,&uot; Rhoades said. &uot;I think it’s going to be very fundamental things that are going to be key to this game. I really do.&uot;