By Daniel Johnson, Sports Editor
One of the best football seasons in school history came to a screeching halt Saturday after the Wildcats were knocked out of the NCAA Division II playoffs in a heartbreaking 76-73 triple-overtime loss to Chadron State.
What began as another dominant ACU playoff performance soon turned sour after a shocking fourth-quarter comeback by the No. 2 Eagles ended the Wildcats’ season.
After three quarters of overwhelming offense, the Wildcats held a 49-20 lead at the beginning of the fourth quarter and slowly watched it slip away. The Eagles scored 56 points in the last quarter and three overtimes to steal a win from ACU.
“When you get in some of the track meets that we’ve been in, you got to keep scoring,” said head coach Chris Thomsen.
Chadron forced three overtimes, and after the Eagles held ACU to a field goal in the third overtime, the Eagles marched down the field, and Chadron quarterback Joe McLain leaped into the end zone to win the game.
ACU ruled the first three quarters after Harlon Hill finalist Bernard Scott posted a school record 303 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns in addition to another 79 yards receiving one receiving touchdown.
The junior running back scored all six of his touchdown in the first three quarters of the game, scoring on runs of 44, 2, 5, 46 and 90 yards and taking a catch 55 yards for another touchdown. Scott’s six touchdowns put his season total at 39, which surpassed former Wildcats and NFL running back Wilbert Montgomery’s 1973 record.
While Scott and ACU’s offense scored fast and frequently, ACU’s defense may have gotten tired out by the constant change of possession and lost the edge that helped them hold Chadron to only 20 points in the first three quarters.
“We were on the field for over 112 plays; that is pretty tough,” Thomsen said. Senior linebacker Cody Stutts said the icy field conditions were difficult to deal with, but ultimately Stutts said the Wildcats have nobody to blame but themselves.
“There are no excuses,” said Stutts, who led the Wildcats with 15 tackles. “Overall we didn’t finish the game on offense and defense.”
Despite the unpleasant exit, Thomsen said the way the Wildcats finished the season, in no way reflects the steps ACU has progressed in his three years heading the program.
“That was a disappointing way to lose,” said Thomsen, who was named Lone Star Conference Coach of the Year for the second-straight year. “But I don’t want to detract from what our seniors were able to because it was definitely a good step for our program and our guys are to be commended for their work this year.”
The loss dropped ACU to 10-3, and capped off the first 10-win season posted by an ACU football team in 30 years. ACU bested last season’s 8-3 record, and the Wildcats hosted and won their first NCAA Division II playoff games with a dominating 56-12 win over Mesa State on Nov. 17.
ACU’s offense finished with 7082 total yards, which was the second-best NCAA total behind Texas Tech. Junior quarterback Billy Malone, Scott and wide receivers Jerale Badon made history by becoming the first team in college football history to have a quarterback with more than 3,500 passing yards, a running back with more than 2,000 yards rushing and two receivers with more than 1,000 receiving yards.
And all four of ACU’s front four offensive weapons had record-breaking seasons:
Badon set a number of ACU and LSC receiving records in his senior season, Malone’s 361 yards and five touchdown throws in Chadron, Neb. put his season total at 3,914 with 37 touchdowns thrown, Knox caught two passes in the end zone and finished the season with a team-high 17 touchdown receptions and Scott broke numerous ACU and conference records with his 2,165 rushing yards and 39 total touchdowns.
And after a heartbreaking end to a record-breaking season, Thomsen is ready for another playoff run.
“Really more than anything it was just a learning experience about what it takes to play at the next level,” Thomsen said. “The further you go [in the playoffs] the more you progress and the more lessons you learn on what it takes to get there.”