For Colorado Mesa’s football team, anything is possible in postseason

With Eystin Salum not listed on the depth chart this week, senior quarterback Sean Rubalcaba will start for Colorado Mesa University as it takes on Texas A&M Commerce in a first-round NCAA playoff game in eastern Texas. Rubalcaba, a Grand Junction High School graduate and Gold Helmet winner, has completed 146 passes on 253 attempts for 1,931 yards and 10 TDs. Rubalcaba has rotated starts — and sometimes series — with Salum, a sophomore out of Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora. The quarterback will have running back David Tann and wide receiver Marcus Hines helping him on offense, and defensive and special teams units that have been clutch for the Mavericks.



QUICKREAD

Leaders of the pack

Statistical leaders in Saturday’s NCAA Division II playoff game between Colorado Mesa and Texas A&M Commerce

Passing

CMU: Sean Rubalcaba, 146-253-8, 1,931 yards, 10 TDs

TAMUC: Luis Perez, 202-306-3, 2,802 yards, 27 TDs

Rushing

CMU: David Tann, 177-1,014, 20 TDs

TAMUC: Richard Cooper, 153-927, 7 TDs

Receiving

CMU: Marcus Hines, 53-584, 4 TDs

TAMUC: Lance Evans, 34-556, 7 TDs

All-Purpose

CMU: Tann, 1,500 yards, 25 TDs

TAMUC: Cooper, 1,028 yards, 8 TDs

Scoring

CMU: Tann, 150 points (25 TDs); Ryan Sheehan 117 points (51 PATs, 22-27 FGs)

TAMUC: Kristov Martinez, 185 points (48-51 PATs, 15-21 FGs)

Tackles

CMU: Blake Nelson 99 tackles (45 unassisted, 54 assists), 14 for loss, 1 interception, 4 breakups, 13 QB hurries, 1 fumble recovery, 1 blocked kick

TAMUC: Brucks Saathoff, 50 tackles (27 unassisted, 23 assists), 5.5 for loss, 1 interception, 1 breakup 1 QB hurry

Interceptions

CMU: Dustin Rivas, 5-33 yards, 1 TD

TAMUC: Yusef Sterling-Lowe, 3-76 yards



Playing “on paper” football doesn’t necessarily translate to playing “on field” football.

“Anything can happen in the playoffs,” Colorado Mesa senior defensive back Cody Daniels said. “It’s like they say in the NFL, any given Sunday. It’s any given Saturday for college ball.”

But let’s play the “on paper” game anyway.

The Mavericks (9-2), tied for No. 24 in the American Football Coaches Association rankings, play at Texas A&M Commerce (9-1), which is No. 8 in the nation, at 1 p.m. today. The Lions are the No. 4 seed in Super Region Four, CMU is No. 5.

It’ll be a matchup of two high-scoring offenses, opportunistic defenses and outstanding special teams units.

“We’ve been behind and our guys find ways to battle and make it close down to the finish, so I think what you’re going to see are these guys have prepared themselves mentally, physically and in every way to be ready,” CMU coach Russ Martin said. “I think you’re going to see an outstanding performance.”

That’s what it takes to win in the playoffs, something the Mavericks haven’t done since 2000, when they went on the road and upended Northeast State (Oklahoma) 40-21, then lost to UC Davis 62-18. In 2003, Mesa lost its only home Division II playoff game 20-15 to Central Oklahoma, then fell 56-12 to Abilene Christian.

The Mavericks haven’t been to the playoffs since. Commerce reached the Division II playoffs last season, and played in bowl games the two previous years.

“Sometimes they talk about experience being an added benefit and often it can be,” Martin said. “At the same time, I think there’s a whole lot to the situation as far as the hunger issue.”

Edge: Texas A&M Commerce

Offensively, Commerce likes to put the ball in the air, and quarterback Luis Perez has thrown for 2,802 yards and 27 touchdowns, with only three interceptions. The Lions also have a hard-running back in Richard Cooper (927 yards, 7 TDs). Perez likes to share the wealth, with 10 different players catching at least one touchdown pass.

The Mavericks counter with senior Sean Rubalcaba, who’s thrown for 1,931 yards and 10 touchdowns, with eight interceptions, four of which came in one game. He’s also a threat to run, with 287 yards and two TDs, but the main man in the backfield is David Tann, who has run for 1,014 yards and 20 touchdowns, plus has another five TDs on 30 receptions.

Four receivers have caught touchdown passes, with Marcus Hines and Josh Brown right behind Tann with four each. Mesa’s innovation on offense the past month, especially last week, has the Mavericks playing as well offensively as they have all season.

Commerce scores an average of 41.1 points a game, Colorado Mesa 42.7, and has scored 231 points the past four weeks, an average of 57.7 a game. Mesa also converts 90 percent of its red-zone chances into points.

Edge: Colorado Mesa

Commerce’s defense has allowed only 182 points this season (18.2 per game) and 381 yards of total offense per game, 131 rushing and 250 passing. The Mavs have allowed 338 points (30.7 per game) and allow 462.5 yards of total offense per game, 204.9 on the ground and 256.6 in the air.

When it comes to creating turnovers, no team in Division II is better than the Lions, who are plus-21 in that department, with 17 interceptions — by 14 different players. Mesa has not been as ball-hawking as last season, with 14 interceptions and four fumble recoveries, plus-2 on the season.

“We’ve given up more points, quite a few yards,” Martin said. “It doesn’t matter. We’ve had some key stops every time we’ve been in those situations.

“They create a lot of turnovers, one of the coaches said they were plus-20 on the year, and that’s phenomenal.”

Edge: Texas A&M Commerce

The way this season has gone for the Mavericks, special teams could determine who moves on to play at Grand Valley State, the top team in the region and No. 2 in the nation.

In the return game, the Lions have a 2.7-yard edge in punt returns (18.1-15.3), the Mavericks a 0.2 edge in kick returns (21.0-20.8). Shawn Hooks has returned three punts for Lion touchdowns, Josh Brown two for the Mavs. Ryan Sheehan has kicked 22 field goals, Commerce’s Kristov Martinez 15, and Mesa has blocked six kicks (with two scoop-and-scores) to Commerce’s two.

Edge: Even

With the homefield advantage, the overall edge — on paper — should go to the Lions.

On paper, though, the Mavericks wouldn’t have knocked off Azusa Pacific last week or Colorado School of Mines or CSU-Pueblo.

“Last week you look at Azusa Pacific and their stats going into that game against us, you’d say they should be the favorite,” Martin said. “Our guys don’t look at it that way. We felt we were the favorite going into the game and we should win the game, and we did win the game.

“Looking at it going into this game, regardless of any experience they have, they can’t have the hunger that these guys have to be in the playoffs and achieve.”


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