By Joel Weckerly, Sports Editor
The ACU football team won’t be going to the playoffs this year.
Despite a valiant effort by the Wildcat defense and redshirt freshman Danieal Manning, ACU fell 10-7 to Texas A&M-Kingsville at Shotwell Stadium Saturday, erasing all hopes of making the postseason.
ACU (5-4, 4-1 Lone Star Conference South) had to be ranked in the top four in the West Region in order to make the playoffs, Saturday’s defeat slid the team to No. 8, making it impossible to jump four spots before season’s end. The only way ACU could share a division title with the Javelinas (8-1, 5-0) is if they fell to Angelo State Saturday.
Following the loss, silence engulfed the Wildcats’ locker room.
“There were hardly any words said at all,” senior center Blake Lewis said. “Some cried; others didn’t. It was pretty glum.”
Head coach Gary Gaines followed the silence with encouraging words.
“I told them I was proud of them,” he said. “They gave an incredible effort and played extremely hard. They invested a lot of sweat and time toward this game, and when you lay it all on the line and come up short, it’s supposed to hurt.”
One player who laid everything on the line was Manning, who could’ve earned the nickname “Slash” after his performance Saturday. The Nebraska transfer recorded 10 tackles, two interceptions and one quarterback sack as a safety; caught three passes for 65 yards and one touchdown as a wideout; and returned three punts for 25 yards as a return man.
“You can’t find words for that kind of performance,” said senior cornerback Kendrick Walker, Manning’s roommate and former high school teammate at Corsicana High School. “I’ve played with this guy for six or seven years and I’ve never seen him do anything like it. He was amazing.”
Manning scored ACU’s lone touchdown, a 31-yard strike from senior quarterback Colby Freeman with 9:00 left to play in the game. But the Cats weren’t able to score again, and an interception thrown by Freeman with 1:22 to play sealed their fate.
TAMUK junior tailback Larry Williams led both teams in rushing, with 144 yards on 31 carries and one touchdown. The Javelinas’ other score came on a 27-yard field goal by sophomore Richard Hammond in the first quarter, following a botched deep snap on a punt by ACU sophomore punter Chase Fishback.
ACU managed just 164 yards of total offense in the loss. The most telling statistic, however, was time of possession: Kingsville had the ball for 36:05 while ACU controlled the clock for 23:55, a stat that wore down the Wildcat defense.
“I thought our defense played well enough to win,” Gaines said. “We just couldn’t do anything with our turnovers.”
ACU wraps up its season Saturday with an LSC South road game at West Texas A&M in Canyon. Although the Wildcats have little left to play for on paper, Gaines said they still have one motivating factor.
“There’s still pride at stake,” Gaines said. “That should be a good motivator. I told them to lick their wounds [Sunday and Monday] and to come back to practice ready to play.”
“It’s hard to come back fired up, but this is the last game for a lot of us,” he said of the team’s 17 seniors. “We’re not gonna lay down at all; we’re still gonna practice hard.”