By Daniel Johnson, Sports Editor
When ACU’s regular season ended two seasons ago, offensive lineman Nathan Young and the rest of the Wildcats found themselves far from the playoffs.
After another losing season, Young and his teammates were forced to do the only thing they could do – write off the season and get ready for offseason workouts.
“Back then I was ready for the season to be over,” Young said.
But now in Young’s senior season, things couldn’t be more different.
In his third season, head coach Chris Thomsen has transformed ACU’s football team from a dwindling 4-6 program to a 9-2 contender for the NCAA Division II title. And Saturday the Wildcats’ quest for a title begins at home in ACU’s first home playoff game in 30 years.
“It’s a big deal,” Young said. “Thirty years is a long time for Abilene not to see a [playoff game], and for this program it feels like we’re only on our way up.”
No. 15 ACU will host No. 17 Mesa State in the first round of the NCAA Division II playoffs Saturday, and the winner of the game will move on to play Chadron State on Nov. 24 in Nebraska.
But regardless of the result, ACU will make history on Saturday.
ACU has never hosted a playoff game while in the NCAA, and the last time the Wildcats played host was Dec. 3, 1977, when ACU beat Wisconsin-Stevens Point, in the NAIA Division I semifinals. But that is not where the parallels between the ’77 Wildcats and the modern-day Wildcats end. In 2007 ACU posted its first nine-win regular season since the Wildcats ’77 national championship team finished 9-1-1 before going on to win the NAIA title.
“I think it’s a great thing that ACU is back in the playoff picture especially at home,” said Wally Bullington, athletic director emeritus and the athletic director in 1977. “It’s a great thing to see our program come toward the top.”
ACU earned its spot after a 42-41 come-from-behind win over Midwestern State and carries one the nation’s top offenses into the first round of the playoffs.
Junior quarterback Billy Malone, who is now the Lone Star Conference’s all-time leading passer after his 304 yards against Midwestern put his career total at 8,167 yards,
leads an ACU offense that averages 538.0 yards per game, 46.4 points per game and leads the nation with the least number of sacks allowed.
Junior running back Bernard Scott leads the nation in touchdowns and total points and is taking the ACU single-season rushing record into the playoffs.
But Mesa State’s defense is statistically the Wildcats toughest test all season.
The Mavericks’ 237.3 yards allowed per game average is sixth in the nation in total defense, and they are No. 3 in the nation in rushing defense and sixth in scoring defense.
Mesa St. comes into Saturday’s game with 26 sacks, 91 tackles for loss and have not allowed more than 27 points in any game this season. And even more impressive, the Mavericks have only allowed a combined 14 points in their last three games.
Leading the Mavericks is defensive end Kurt Kissner, who leads the nation in sacks (14.5) and sacks per game (1.3)
“We can’t control what they are gonna do,” Young said. “You’ve just got to take it as any other game.”