By Joel Weckerly, Sports Editor
On Saturday, the ACU football team was able to keep a nationally ranked, undefeated Eastern New Mexico squad off its heels in the fourth quarter and come away the spoiler.
Can we say deja vu?
The Wildcats accomplished the same task almost one year ago to the date, when they knocked off the No. 25 Greyhounds 20-19 on a last-second field goal by then sophomore kicker Eben Nelson Oct. 5, 2002. This time around, ACU’s defense came to the rescue and led the Cats to a 24-14 upset victory over No. 19 ENMU in both teams’ Lone Star Conference South Division opener.
ACU is now 2-2 overall and 1-0 in the LSC South, while ENMU is 4-1 and 0-1.
“We made some big plays at opportune times on both offense and defense,” head coach Gary Gaines said. “I think that was the big deal.”
Junior linebacker Randall Webb and senior linebacker Cliff Compton sparked the ACU defense, recording 18 and 16 tackles, respectively. The defense-which had to spend a good chunk of the game on the field-had its biggest test in the fourth quarter, after the Greyhounds had just tied up the game at 14-14. On the ensuing kickoff, senior cornerback Kendrick Walker fumbled the ball, giving ENMU possession at the ACU 13-yard line. But the run-oriented Grey-hound offense couldn’t pick up a first down and was forced to attempt a field goal, which they missed.
The defense came up big again later in the quarter, when redshirt freshman safety Danieal Manning picked off a long pass from ENMU quarterback Steve Hinson to set up Nelson’s game-clinching 41-yard field goal with 1:38 left to play.
“The defense definitely gets a lot of credit,” said sophomore wide receiver Law-rence Hardman, who finished with three catches for 108 yards. “They did really good up front and in the secondary. You’ve got to congratulate them.”
Hardman bears some thanks, as well. His 81-yard touchdown reception from senior quarterback Colby Freeman in the second quarter gave the Cats a 14-0 lead and some extra motivation to finish strong.
“I didn’t think I was gonna catch it,” Hardman said of the fingertip grab. “I turned upfield and knew there were defenders right there. I saw a hole and luckily I slipped through them.”
Senior running back Richard Whitaker also charged the offense, finishing with 153 yards on 27 carries and two scores.
Freeman completed just 5 of 20 passes for 120 yards in the game, but 10 of those failed attempts were dropped by Wildcat receivers.
“I know I missed about four myself,” Hardman said. “I was just nervous, I guess. The coaches talked to us about that afterward, and we just have to concentrate more. We need to practice ball-handling drills in practice.”
“It wasn’t picture perfect by any means,” Gaines said of the big victory. “I think we’ve still got a ways we can go and improve.”
Hardman agreed and said the win revealed what the talented Wildcats are capable of.
“We haven’t been putting things together in games,” he said. “But we’re starting to do that now on offense and defense. You should be seeing a different team from now on.”
ACU hits the road Saturday for a LSC North matchup with Central Oklahoma and travels to Angelo State a week later before returning to Abilene Oct. 25 for the Homecoming game against Midwestern State.