KILGORE, Texas - Facing the third nationally ranked team in the last four games, the Northeastern A&M Golden Norsemen make the 435-mile trek Saturday to Kilgore, Texas for their final road game of the regular season.
A large Parent's Day crowd is expected for the 3 p.m. kickoff in R.E. St. John Memorial Stadium for the sixth-ranked Kilgore College Rangers last home game of the regular season.
While the Golden Norsemen saw their post-season aspirations evaporate with a 41-14 loss to then 8th-ranked Blinn College last weekend before a large homecoming crowd at Miami's Robertson Field, coach Rob Green's squad is pursuing a winning record.
The Norsemen are fifth in the Southwest Junior College Football Conference with a 1-3 record while standing 4-3 on the year.
“We're facing our third nationally ranked team in the last four weeks and the one thing we've got to do is take care of the football,” Green said. “In all four games we've done a very poor job of protecting the football.
“There's no doubt that if we take care of the football, we're in every game and have a chance to go win,” Green said. “In this conference, when it gets late in the fourth quarter you always want to be in a position to win the game and we haven't provided that chance because of turnovers.
“Last week was our worst so far with two fumbles off the kicking game, three interceptions and three fumbles in the backfield. You can't beat anybody doing that.”
After a two-year stint as head coach at Garden City, Kan., J.J. Eckert has returned to Kilgore College and has the Rangers on a six-game winning streak.
Eckert has the Rangers sitting atop the SWJCFC with a perfect 4-0 record.
Following a 34-6 win over Trinity Valley last weekend in Athens, the Rangers stand 6-1 on the season.
“Offensively, Kilgore is a run-oriented team even though they threw for close to 250 yards against Trinity Valley,” Green said. “They like to line up and come right at you with a power ground game.”
“They are the least-fancy offense in the conference. They don't use a whole lot of sets, but they are very effective with their simple approach. After running and running at you, they have the ability to jump up and hit you with the play-action pass.”
The oldest series among teams south of the Red River, the Golden Norse hold a 17-9 advantage since it started in 1951.
Despite suffering a 28-10 loss to the Golden Norsemen on Robertson Field during the regular season last year, Kilgore returned to Miami two weeks later to exact revenge on NEO in the first round of the playoffs. A daunting stand at their own 5-yard line with less than two minutes left on the clock stopped the Golden Norsemen and preserved a 14-12 win for Kilgore.
Golden Norse sophomore quarterback-running back Bo Bowling ranks sixth in the nation in rushing with 872 yards on 152 carries and 11 touchdowns.
After completing 31 of 66 passes for 444 yards and four TDs, Bowling ranks 10th in the nation in total offense. He has also caught eight passes for 64 yards and returned five punts for 41 yards.
Veteran Golden Norse wide receiver Cutis Tucker leads the SWJCFC and ranks third nationally with 39 receptions for 673 yards and three TDs. Tucker has also returned eight kickoffs for 206 yards.
“Defensively, Kilgore likes to attack and force you into mistakes,” Green said. “They have some talent along the front line and their linebackers are very aggressive. They are also pretty skilled at shutting down the passing game. They run out of a 4-3 alignment and they used sound technique. They really aren't anything different than what we've seen these last four weeks.”
While neither team features a dominating defense, the Golden Norsemen have three players in the nation's top 20 defenders.
Veteran linebacker Jayson Bates ranks third in the nation with 42 unassisted tackles and 53 assists.
Outside linebacker Logan Zabel is 11th in the nation with 33 tackles and 45 assists.
Sophomore strong safety Emmanuel Jones ranked 12 nationally with 47 solo tackles and 30 assists.
NEO will be withoutstarting cornerback Leotist Gordon and free safety Kylee Hill. Gordon has missed two games with a sprained knee while Hill suffered an ankle sprain in the loss to Blinn.