By Jared Fields, Sports Editor
In front of a packed home crowd, ACU pulled away early to clinch a 27-18 win against longtime rival Texas A&M-Commerce.
Once again, junior Danieal Manning made the difference for the Wildcats. Manning returned the first punt of the game for a touchdown, and forced a fumble near the end zone to save a score.
“Every week it’s going to be something,” head coach Chris Thomsen said about Manning.
Manning fielded the squib punt off two bounces near the home sideline. He sidestepped a group of tacklers, and then broke free to the middle of the field. After catching a few key blocks, Manning sprinted into the end zone and quickly gave the Wildcats a 7-0 lead.
On the next Lions possession, the Wildcat defense held the offense inside the 20-yard line. On third down, junior defensive end Azzie Beagnyam and sophomore linebacker Cody Stutts sacked Lions quarterback Kyle Westerberg for a six-yard loss and forced the team to punt from its own 14-yard line. The Lions punter, Kyle Cook, received a bad snap and was forced to run. Cook scrambled, but lost five yards on the play and gave the Wildcats the ball on the nine-yard line.
Rashon Myles made two rushing attempts before Billy Malone connected with freshman Chris Conklin from three yards out to put the Wildcats ahead 14-0 after less than five minutes of play in the game.
The Lions punted away the ball after another three-and-out series, and ACU drove the ball back into enemy territory before Mark Trevino chipped in a 24-yard field goal and upped the Wildcats lead to 17-0.
The Wildcats starting position on the field was near midfield because Cook’s kicks went out of bounds to get away from the always-dangerous Manning. Starting with such a short field, the offensive numbers misled their productiveness. The longest drive was for 42 yards, which set up Trevino’s field goal.
However, on ACU’s next possession, the Wildcats went three-and-out, and was forced to punt. On the snap, the ball soared over punter Chase Fishback’s head, and bounced toward the end zone. Fishback outran a Lions defender to the ball, where he kicked it out of bounds into the back of the end zone for a safety. Fishback’s quick decision allowed the Lions only two points, instead of a possible touchdown.
The Lions next score came from a 35-yard field goal after a more than six-minute drive. The Wildcats’ following drive ended when a holding call pushed the team back and forced them to punt, and the Lions ran out the clock to end the half. The Wildcats went into halftime with a 17-5 lead.
The ACU defense kept all the offensive numbers low in the first half. The Lions offense posted just 81 total yards and stayed pinned inside their territory for most of the half.
“I think from a scheming standpoint, our coaches did a good job of putting a game plan together,” Thomsen said. “Our players did a good job of executing that scheme and being where they’re supposed to be.”
Coming out of halftime, ACU again came out aggressive, and scored midway through the third quarter. Malone threw a pass deep down the field to sophomore Jerale Badon, who leaped in front of a defender to grab the pass for a gain of 33 yards. Two plays later, Malone dumped off a screen pass to freshman running back Taber Minner, who ran 25 yards for a touchdown.
In the fourth quarter, ACU was looking to coast to a win, but a few plays brought the Lions within striking distance.
The Wildcats were up 27-8, and Commerce was driving down the field. On a throw into the end zone, junior Mark Gaines intercepted the pass in the end zone, and appeared to down the ball for a touchback. However, Gaines was called down at the one-yard line, and the Wildcats took over with their backs against the goal line. On the first play, Rashon Myles was tackled in the end zone for a safety, and the score went to 27-10, ACU lead.
“We didn’t execute down there, and that gave them a good chance to get back in it,” Thomsen said. “That’s the biggest play right there, giving up the safety.”
After the Wildcats’ kickoff, the Lions drove 77 yards for a touchdown and followed with a two-point conversion.
With just more than two minutes left in the game, Commerce made an onside kick and recovered the ball on the Wildcat 46-yard line. On a third and fifteen from the 46-yard line, Westerberg completed a pass to Cedric Patt over the middle of the field. Patt looked all alone as he seemed sure to gallop into the end zone when Manning came from behind and knocked the ball loose from Patt’s arms at the two- yard line. The ball popped out and rolled into the end zone for an ACU touchback. The touchback gave the ball back to the Wildcats and closed any hope for a comeback from the Lions.
The defense was strong all night for the Wildcats, which showed in the stats. Marcus Brown finished the game with eight tackles total, six solo, including two sacks. Matt Allen also had eight tackles from the outside linebacker position. Standout senior defensive end Clayton Farrell recorded nine tackles with one sack, and sophomore Cody Stutts also had nine total tackles in the game.
Malone finished the game with 150 yards and two touchdowns on 17-28 passing and one interception.
“Billy improved a lot on his decision making,” Thomsen said. “Offensively I’d say there was improvement. It’s getting better; we took a step.”