By Joel Weckerly, Sports Editor
It might as well have been scripted.
Perhaps it was the way Danieal Manning fielded Texas A&M-Commerce’s second-half kickoff from the 3-yard line and darted up the middle of the field. Or the way the redshirt freshman safety took the hit to his shoulderpad at the 20, re-adjusted and took the ball 97 yards to paydirt. Or perhaps it was the vicious block junior safety Dawon Gentry put on Commerce safety Andre Martin, opening the seam for his teammate.
Whatever the case, Manning’s 97-yard TD return Saturday in Commerce-the fourth-longest return in ACU history-was a special teams gem and played a big part in the Wildcats’ 21-7 Lone Star Conference South win.
“At the half, we said we had to score once more on special teams,” Manning said. (Earlier in the game, junior linebacker Randall Webb blocked a punt and recovered it in the Commerce end zone for a touchdown.) “It was a big rush. That last 30 yards-everything gets silent; all you hear is yourself breathing. But Dawon got the key block. I saw it and I heard it, and it was a hard hit.”
Gentry couldn’t help but chuckle as he recalled the block, a head-over-heels hit that kept Martin out the entire second half.
“As we were setting the wall, I saw my man slowing down like he didn’t know what was going on,” Gentry said. “I just cleaned him up…he didn’t come back, either.”
Nor did Commerce, which only generated 49 yards of total offense against ACU’s relentless defense. The Wildcats recorded 12 sacks on the day, including a bodyslam delivered by freshman linebacker Willis Hogan to TAMC starting quarterback Miles Durham. Durham left the game with a separated shoulder after the hit.
“You know you’re doing pretty good if you hold a team to less than 50 yards total offense,” ACU head coach Gary Gaines said. “Defense is the way you win games, and we had great play from our defense.”
Webb led the defense with 10 tackles and 1.5 sacks in addition to the blocked punt, while defensive ends Clayton Farrell and Brad Walton combined for five sacks.
“I thought the defense played a dang good game,” Gentry said. “That was the best game I’ve seen us play. To be honest, it was kinda like a JV game.”
But the Wildcat offensive problems continued. The offense, which ranks 10th in the 14-team LSC, only generated 124 total yards Saturday. Junior starting quarterback Greg Wiggins, who threw for just 28 yards, separated his shoulder just before halftime, giving redshirt freshman Caleb Ensor his first action of the season.
But Ensor didn’t last long, getting knocked out cold in the third quarter. Desperate, Gaines sent Wiggins back in for the final quarter to hand the ball off. When Ensor came out, injured senior Colby Freeman-who broke his arm Oct. 18-put on pads and a No. 46 ACU jersey and began throwing on the sideline, though head trainer Rick Fox later denied that Freeman would have played.
“Was I scared? Yes, very,” Gentry said of the quarterback dilemma. “Wiggins hurt his shoulder and Caleb didn’t know where he was, and I was starting to wonder what we were going to do.”
Gaines said the team’s lack of offensive output is still a major concern.
“It’s a lack of execution,” he said. “We had missed blocks, assignment errors, dropped passes. It’s not limited to one group or one individual. It’s a team deal.”
And it’s no big secret among players that ACU’s defense is forced to pick up the slack for the struggling offense.
“Honestly, I think we are,” Manning said. “But we don’t use that as an excuse. As long as we can keep the other team from scoring, we can win games.”
The Wildcats now stand at 5-3 overall and 4-0 atop the LSC South with rival Texas A&M-Kingsville, which they play host to Saturday. If ACU beats the favored Javelinas, it guarantees itself at least a share of the South Division championship. If the Cats lose, however, they surrender all hope of making the postseason.
Currently, ACU stands at No. 6 in the Division II West Region Poll, while Kingsville enters this week’s poll at No. 2. The top four teams in the final poll on Nov. 16 qualify for the 16-team playoff beginning Nov. 22. ACU needs to win this week and next week at West Texas A&M to have any shot at the playoffs.
“The win [over Commerce] feels good but we know we’ve got to go out and do the same thing this week,” said Webb, who earned LSC Defensive Player-of-the-Week for his play Saturday. “We don’t want to get big heads because we’ve got a big game coming up.”
Gaines said Wiggins is doubtful for the Kingsville game, and said Freeman could possibly make an early comeback.
“We’re hoping so,” said Gaines, “but we’ll see how it goes this week.”