PLAINVIEW, TX (KCBD) - Courtesy of Wayland Baptist University Athletics Department
The last time the Wayland Baptist football team went to Phoenix to take on Arizona Christian, there was a bit more buzz than what there likely will be Saturday night when the Pioneers and Firestorm square off in the desert.
Last November, the Pioneers were 7-1 and ranked 22nd in the NAIA, and both Wayland and the Firestorm, ranked the equivalent of 26th, were 4-0 in the Central States Football League. It was billed as the NAIA Game of the Week, and it was easily the biggest, most meaningful game for the Pioneers since the program was re-launched four years earlier.
Wayland lost, 45-35.
When the Pioneers (0-2) and 12th-ranked Firestorm (2-0) – who started their football program two years after Wayland in 2014 – meet again at 9 p.m. CDT Saturday at Shadow Mountain High School Stadium, the pre-game buzz may not be as big, but the hunger for a Wayland win will be.
"We've aimed for this one since we left Arizona last year," Wayland coach Butch Henderson said. "We have a chance to go out there and beat one of the top ranked teams in the nation, and our kids have confidence that they can do it. They feel like they can go out there and beat Arizona Christian.
"As a coach, that's exciting to see."
The game can be watched online with links available at www.wbuathletics.com, including play-by-play both online and locally at 1090-AM by Danny Andrews beginning at 8:30.
While almost everything had gone right for the Pioneers leading up to last season's game with Arizona Christian, not much has gone Wayland's way so far in 2017. The Pioneers dropped their first two games to NCAA Division III schools Louisiana College (59-20) and Austin College (34-12).
That said, Henderson said he couldn't be happier with how his team has responded.
"When you come in with high expectations and things go wrong, it's easy to start pointing fingers. That hasn't happened with this group," Henderson said. "Maybe better than any team I've been a part of, everybody is supportive of each other and pulling for each other. The offensive guys are supporting the defensive guys and vice versa.
"We'll get it turned around because of that."
Trying to turn around the season playing a third straight road game against the NAIA's 12th-ranked team won't be easy.
"The biggest thing we have to be able to do is start making plays that will be the difference," Henderson said. "There are four or five plays that really determine a ballgame, and we have to make those. We're close, we just have to see it through and get it done."
Just as has been the case so far this season, turnovers were a big factor in last year's WBU-ACU game. The Pioneers, who went into the game plus-12 in turnovers, lost three fumbles and threw three interceptions against the Firestorm, which jumped out to a 21-0 lead before Wayland came storming back.
The Pioneers produced 686 yards of total offense compared to ACU's 502 and had 30 first downs versus the Firestorm's 24. Then sophomore quarterback Mitchell Parsley (34-of-62) threw for a WBU record 512 yards and four touchdowns, including 11 and 67 yards to now senior Devonte Hayden. Ben Owen finished with five receptions for 146 yards while Hayden got six for 113. Current student assistant coach Preston Woodard caught a school-record nine passes for 94 yards.
Other current Pioneers with impressive stats in that game are De'Sean Johnson with 133 rushing yards on just 13 carries, including a 66-yard touchdown, and Brian Johnson and Richard Parham with 10 and eight tackles, respectively.
Henderson said the Pioneers felt they could have won.
"We realize that we let that one get away from us last year," he said. "We knew we'd have to go out there and make plays and make things happen and get on the top side of the turnover ratio."
Those will be important factors again Saturday night as the Pioneers take on an unbeaten Arizona Christian team that has defeated Simon Fraser (British Columbia, Canada), 34-28, and Bacone last week in Muskogee, Okla., 35-7.
Henderson said the Firestorm have a new quarterback in Ryan Esslinger, a 6-foot, 200-pound senior from La Habra, Calif. Esslinger was the starter two years ago before getting injured, which opened the door for Gerrit Groenewold to log a couple of all-conference seasons. Groenewold graduated early, Henderson said, and Esslinger is the starter once again. He's been highly efficient in the Firestorm's first two games, completing 48-of-79 passes for 494 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
"They're pretty balanced between the run and pass, but they spread it out and they're going to throw," Henderson said.
The coach said ACU has a "very talented defense" led in part by freshman middle linebacker Austin Schleier (5-11, 225).
Henderson also mentioned the Firestorm's sophomore kicker/punter, Derek Brush, who is averaging 45.3 yards per punt to ranked fourth in the NAIA.
"I wouldn't be surprised if people aren't seeing him in the NFL someday," Henderson said.
Wayland's defense is led by senior linebacker Michael Nealy (6-0, 185) of Fort Worth, who has logged 18 tackles in two games.