By Michael Freeman, Managing Editor
The Wildcats’ historic playoff run came to an end as No. 2 ACU lost to No. 3 Northwest Missouri State 45-36 on a chilly, overcast afternoon Saturday at Shotwell Stadium.
With the win, the Bearcats advanced to the NCAA Division II semifinal game, which will be next Saturday against North Alabama, who defeated Delta State 55-34 Saturday.
“It was a great team effort, a great win,” said Northwest Missouri State quarterback Joel Osborn. “We knew it was going to be a high-scoring game; they’re such a great team. We just controlled what we could control, and I think we did a great job.”
As for ACU, the football team ends its season with an overall record of 11-1 and an appearance in the NCAA Division II quarterfinal round – the farthest round the Wildcats have ever reached in school history.
“As bad as you feel right now, I don’t want to take away from what our team has accomplished this year,” said ACU head coach Chris Thomsen. “I’m really proud of them. It’s a great football team – very unselfish group of guys. They accomplished more than what has been accomplished around here in a long time.”
Penalties and the Bearcat offense hurt the Wildcats’ chances of winning. ACU committed 15 penalties (five of which were for false starts and three were for offsides) for 110 yards, while Northwest Missouri State only had eight penalties for 61 yards.
“The offsides – there was really no excuse for that,” said ACU defensive lineman Nick Jones.
While both teams finished the game with almost the exact same amount of total yards (ACU – 455, NWMSU – 454), the Bearcats picked up their yards at opportune moments in the game. Northwest Missouri State converted nine of 15 third-down plays, while ACU struggled to convert seven of 17 on third-down.
“They came up huge on third-down,” Thomsen said. “I thought Northwest Missouri did an outstanding job.”
ACU quarterback Billy Malone threw for 269 yards passing with two touchdowns and two interceptions in his final game as a Wildcat. Wide receiver Johnny Knox caught both of Malone’s touchdown passes and ended the game with 44 yards receiving. Running back Bernard Scott finished the game with 169 yards rushing, 76 yards receiving (245 all-purpose) and two touchdowns.
But, the Wildcats’ potent offense got off to a sluggish start in the first quarter. However, the Bearcat offense did not.
The Bearcats’ first scoring drive came in their first possession of the game as Northwest Missouri State built an eight-play, 66-yard drive that ended in a 24-yard touchdown pass from Osborn to wide receiver Abe Qaoud across the middle of the field.
“I don’t think we were really ourselves early,” Thomsen said. “Credit Northwest Missouri. They’ll take you out of your rhythm.”
The Wildcats responded with a 47-yard field goal by kicker Matt Adams with 10:34 left in the first quarter.
After a three-and-out drive by Northwest Missouri State, ACU scored again as Malone connected with Knox on a nine-yard touchdown pass after a four-play, 67-yard drive.
With two minutes left in the quarter, the Bearcats retook the lead as backup quarterback Blake Bolles tossed a two-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Applegate.
Despite Malone completing four of nine passes for 44 yards, ACU was only down 14-10 at the end of the first quarter.
“I’m proud of our team, and the way they continued to fight back,” Thomsen said.
ACU’s offense picked up in the second quarter, but so did Northwest Missouri State’s.
The Bearcats opened the second quarter with a nine-play, 54-yard drive that culminated in running back LaRon Council diving one yard into the end zone to put Northwest Missouri State up 21-10.
Almost five minutes later, the Wildcats scored off a 25-yard field goal by Adams.
On the Bearcats’ ensuing possession, Osborn led his team 68 yards down the field on eight plays to the end zone as he threw a 21-yard pass to wide receiver Nick Rhodes.
The Wildcats struck back as Malone orchestrated a drive of his own – 12 plays, 84 yards – which ended with Malone tossing a 6-yard touchdown pass to Knox.
ACU went into the locker room trailing 28-20 at halftime.
And the Wildcats came out of the locker room on fire as Scott and Malone put together a 5-play, 51-yard opening drive, which ended in Scott running into the end zone from eight yards out.
But, Osborn and Council replied with a drive of their own. The Bearcats marched 67 yards down the field on 10 plays, ending with Council rushing for a 5-yard touchdown.
“We have a lot of confidence in what we do on both sides of the ball,” said Northwest Missouri State head coach Mel Tjeerdsma. “And I think that makes a tremendous difference.”
The Wildcats could not keep pace with the Bearcats on their following possession as they had to punt after a 12-play, 43-yard drive. Northwest Missouri State then strung together an 11-play, 98-yard drive, which culminated on the second play of the fourth quarter with Bolles taking it into the end zone from 14 yards out.
Down 42-27, ACU bounced back with Scott punching it in from one yard out after a 13-play, 78-yard drive.
But that was the last time the Wildcat offense would score as Northwest Missouri State chewed up nearly six minutes of the clock on their ensuing possession, which ended with a 32-yard field goal by kicker Tommy Frevert.
ACU tried to stage a comeback in the final three and a half minutes, but Malone was intercepted by cornerback E.J. Hawkins at the Bearcat 24-yard line.
Northwest Missouri ran out the clock with Osborn taking a safety as time expired.
“We didn’t give the ball back to them and the time was out,” Osborn said. “It was the best safety I’ve ever taken.”
Osborn finished the game with 247 yards passing and two touchdowns. Council rushed for 78 yards, caught 62 yards and scored twice.
ACU’s playoff run ends after a season that saw the Wildcats’ first undefeated season since 1950 and numerous records broken.
“It’s tough to go out like this, but I’m very proud of them,” Thomsen said.