By Daniel Johnson, Sports Editor
The back-and-forth South division tiebreaker between ACU and Tarleton State came down to special teams. Tarleton executed and ACU didn’t.
“It’s a disappointing deal,” head coach Chris Thomsen said. “We had the opportunity to win the game … we just got beat.”
Tarleton State kicker Paul Williams booted a 32-yard field goal with four seconds remaining in the game to beat the nationally ranked ACU Wildcats 37-36 and pull into first place in the Lone Star Conference South division on Saturday.
The game-winning kick came after ACU failed to convert a PAT for the second time in a row.
Despite coming back from a 17-point first-half deficit and finding a temporary answer to Tarleton’s explosive running game in the fourth quarter, the early blocked punt and two failed PAT came back to haunt the Wildcats and made the difference that gave the Tarleton Texans their fifth-straight win.
“We didn’t play well collectively,” said wide receiver Jerale Badon, whose 14-catch performance broke the ACU single-game record. “We made mistakes we don’t usually make.”
Those mistakes dropped the Wildcats to No. 5 in the Southwest regional rankings behind Tarleton State, and ACU needs to win the remaining two games of the season to secure the programs’ first NCAA DII playoff berth.
The Wildcats’ defense struggled to find an answer for Tarleton running back Michael Sampson, who rushed for 157 yards for three touchdowns and averaged 5.8 yards-per-carry. Sampson, a Georgia Tech transfer, was injured for the Texans’ first three losses but has played in all of five of Tarleton’s wins.
ACU quarterback Billy Malone recorded his fourth-straight game with more than 300 yards passing as he threw for 353 yards and four touchdowns. Malone is ranked fourth in the nation in passing efficiency and total offense and 20 touchdown passes this season.
The Wildcats finished the game with only 44-yards on the ground and averaged 2.1 yards-per-carry.
ACU grabbed an early lead after Malone completed three passes for 80 yards, the latter being a 27-yard touchdown to wide receiver John Brock, to help ACU to a an early lead. But the early ACU score was soon overshadowed by the Tarleton State offense that scored on its first five possessions of the game.
The five scores were a two rushing touchdowns from Sampson, a 33-yard catch by wide receiver Richard Bartel and two field goals by Williams.
ACU’s only immediate answer to the Tarleton’s boost of offense was a field goal from Matt Adams before half time, leaving the Wildcats behind 27-10.
ACU came back from the deficit and appeared to find the answer to Sampson’s rushing attack and Tarleton’s defense, after forcing four-straight punts and scoring two third quarter touchdowns.
Malone found running back Taber Minner on the left and Minner weaved his way through the defense for a 24-yard touchdown early in the third-quarter. Minutes later running back Chancy Campbell ran in the second third quarter touchdown after breaking through the line and escaping for a 28-yard score on a crucial third and one possession. The scored pulled ACU within three points of Tarleton’s game long lead.
ACU continued to score as Malone found Badon for a 16-yard touchdown and the Wildcats’ first lead of the game but failed to convert the extra point after Tarleton blocked the play. Sampson presented Tarleton’s answer the following drive with a 32-yard touchdown.
ACU pulled ahead once more with another Malone-Brock touchdown, this time for nine yards. But another missed extra point gave put Tarleton within two points with 5:22 remaining.
Tarleton capitalized on the final drive and made it to the 29-yard line to set up Williams’ game-winning kick.