Wildcat football came to a close last Saturday with possibly its best performance of the season, a 37-35 win against Stephen F. Austin.
ACU finished the season at 6-6 overall. The Wildcats looked like a Southland Conference team this season, going 4-4 in conference play including two wins against the established programs of Central Arkansas and Stephen F. Austin. ACU also battled two FBS teams and two top-25 FCS opponents.
“There was a little bit of everything this season,” said Ken Collums, head coach. “We won some really big games, and we lost some really disappointing games that we should’ve finished. We went to Troy, Alabama, and took them down. That was a huge win, and for me, that solidified that we can compete with guys for four quarters.”
The ‘Cats opened the season facing their toughest non-conference schedule to date. ACU went into the Georgia Dome and fell on a last-second field goal to Georgia State 38-37. The Wildcats would fall just short of completing a comeback the following week against nationally-ranked Northern Arizona, 27-21. ACU would finally get its first win of the season against a successful FBS program in Troy, 38-35.
ACU cruised past Houston Baptist and Incarnate Word to place them atop the Southland Conference with a 2-0 Southland record. It didn’t last long, however, as Lamar would pull out a last-second comeback to beat the ‘Cats at Shotwell, 24-21. The team would bounce back in their final non-conference game of the year as they defeated the NAIA’s Ave Maria, 55-14, for ACU’s homecoming game. A rough stretch of games ended in disappointing losses at McNeese and Sam Houston, putting them at 4-5 and 2-3 in conference.
ACU’s tough stretch would continue against Coach Collums’ alma mater, Central Arkansas. The ‘Cats, without an injured Parker McKenzie, pounded the Bears 52-35 behind five touchdowns from freshman quarterback Kade Munden. The final home game of the season did not go well for ACU as the team turned the ball over five times on its way to a 34-10 beatdown by Northwestern State. ACU would need one final win to continue the streak which came against Collums’ mentor, Clint Conque, at Stephen F. Austin. This time, ACU’s 37 points would be enough to give the Wildcats an even 6-6 season.
“We struggled from time to time, but every other team struggled also,” Collums said. “The fact that we were able to come right in from the beginning and compete right away tells me we aren’t that far off. It tells me that we belong in this league and everybody knows it. To me it’s the biggest up-and-coming FCS program in the entire country.”
ACU put together its ninth consecutive .500 or better season, making the program a perennial winner and competitor. The team has shown that even with changes on either side of the ball, there will be still be success.
The offense put together another campaign of more than 5,000 yards behind the arm of sophomore quarterback Parker McKenzie and the legs of freshman running back De’Andre Brown. McKenzie became the sixth quarterback in ACU history to throw for over 3,000 yards. He also added 22 scoring tosses through the air.
Brown dominated opponents this year, averaging 7.0 yards per carry on his way to 962 yards and seven touchdowns. The talented freshman ran for more than 100 yards five times this season, including a 256-yard, three-touchdown performance against Stephen F. Austin.
Junior Herschel Sims contributed as well in an injury-plagued season. Sims ran through the pain for 559 yards and four touchdowns. He was a key player in the Wildcats’ win at Troy, rushing 20 times for 96 yards.
The turnover from the 2013 season at receiver was no problem for the ‘Cats as young players and transfers stepped up to the challenge in 2014. The ball was spread around all season as five players had 20 or more catches. The lone senior receiver, Demarcus Thompson, led the way with 54 catches for 640 yards and two touchdowns. He ended his career with 120 receptions for 1,523 yards and eight touchdowns. Thompson passed Johnny Knox in the final game of the season to be 10th on ACU’s career reception list.
Junior transfer Cedric Gilbert turned out to be the biggest playmaker for the ‘Cats this season. Gilbert burned opponents as he led the team in yards per catch (17.6), yards (667) and touchdowns (seven).
Junior Cade Stone entered the season with experience as a returner but none at receiver. He entered this season with zero career catches. Stone was a consistent playmaker for the ‘Cats snaring passes for 494 yards and five touchdowns.
ACU’s tight ends continued their red zone success from the previous year as they combined for seven touchdown catches. Senior Noah Cheshier led all tight ends with 27 catches for 298 yards and three touchdowns.
Senior starting fullback/tight end Jonathan Parker did a little bit of everything for the Wildcats this year, even playing running back against Incarnate Word. Parker will leave the team as a three-year starter and key contributor to the team.
The defense continued their opportunistic ways as they forced 25 turnovers this year with a veteran defense. The defense featured two senior safeties in Justin Stewart and Angel Lopez. They both tied for the team lead in interceptions with two and combined to make 181 total tackles. The two safeties started three years together, forcing 12 total turnovers.
The rest of the starting secondary struggled to stay on the field. Junior cornerback Keith Barnett missed three games this season due to injury, while Tyler Chapa was dismissed from the program for issues off the field. Junior transfer Jonathan Epps and freshman Terry Ausborne stepped up, especially in the Central Arkansas game, where the two combined to force four turnovers.
Senior linebacker Justin Stephens wreaked havoc all over the field this year, leading the team in tackles with 100 and ranking second on the team in tackles for loss with 7.0. True freshman Sam Denmark showed how important recruiting classes can be as he compiled 77 tackles in just 10 games of play. Denmark also played a huge role in ACU’s win over Incarnate Word as he recorded two interceptions.
Defensive End Nick Richardson finished up his ACU career ranked no. 2 on the sack list with 32.5 sacks. Richardson dominated Southland opponents this season with 17 tackles for loss and nine sacks. He also forced two fumbles and blocked a field goal against then-No. 25 Northern Arizona.
ACU’s first official season in the Southland was one to remember as they upset three major opponents. Wide receiver Cedric Gilbert believes the team has a bright future.
“We have more confidence and belief in our team,” Gilbert said. “We know that we belong in the conference and we can win a conference championship.”