Nov. 7, 2009

Courtesy of Abilene Christian

WICHITA FALLS -- A season that began with such promise for the ACU Wildcats now becomes a waiting game to see if it will continue into the NCAA Division II playoffs.

In a game the 12th-ranked Wildcats had to win to assure themselves of a fourth straight trip to the NCAA post-season, ACU came up on the short end of a 15-13 score against No. 9 Midwestern State in the regular-season finale at Memorial Stadium.

The loss drops ACU -- the pre-season favorite to win the Lone Star Conference South Division -- finishes the regular season at 8-3 overall, 6-3 in the LSC and 3-3 in the division.  The Mustangs, meanwhile, appear to have clinched a playoff spot as they improve to 9-2, 7-2 and 4-2.

ACU entered the game ranked No. 4 in the NCAA Division II Super Region Four rankings, while MSU was ranked No. 7.  The top six teams in the final rankings will reach the playoffs, and the Mustangs appear to have clinched their first playoff berth since 2006.

The Wildcats' bid was aided, however, by losses by the No. 5 team (Missouri Western) and No. 6 team (Central Missouri), leaving the Wildcats hoping the pairings will come out in their favor.  Those pairings will be announced Sunday at 2 p.m (Abilene time) on ESPNews.

The Wildcats didn't look like they had any chance at a playoff berth after a first quarter that was dominated by the Mustangs.  With a strong wind at its back, the Mustangs posted 15 points and ran up 224 yards of total offense.

Quarterback Zack Eskridge -- the nation's leader in passing efficiency -- threw for more than 180 yards in the first quarter as the Midwestern offense moved at will and the defense kept ACU pinned deep on its own end of the field.

Trailing 15-0 at the end of the first quarter the Wildcats appeared dead in the water and their playoff hopes on life support.

But the game turned in the Wildcats' favor in the second quarter as the Wildcats finally got their offense moving.

Working with a short field, Mitchell Gale capped a 10-play, 45-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Trey Simeone to make it 15-7 with 6:23 left in the half.  On its next possession, freshman placekicker Morgan Lineberry drilled a 56-yard field goal to cap a five-play, 57-yard drive that cut the MSU lead to 15-10 with 1:05 left in the first half.

The field goal for Lineberry was the third-longest field goal in ACU history behind the 69-yarder by Ove Johansson against East Texas State in 1976 and a 58-yarder by Bob Bearden against Angelo State in 1969.

Midwestern took the ball and the wind to start the third quarter, but unlike the first quarter, the Mustangs couldn't do anything with either.  MSU got the ball twice inside ACU territory on Wildcat turnovers (Gale interception and Dennis Campbell fumble), but the ACU defense wouldn't let the Mustangs get into the end zone.

MSU kicker Lee Scott missed a 51-yard field goal after the Gale interception, giving the ball right back to the Wildcats.

The Wildcats finally got the wind in the fourth quarter, and on their first full drive of the quarter moved from their own 3-yard line to the MSU 34 before the drive stalled.  Gale and Campbell hooked up for a big 19-yard gain on 3rd-and-10 from the ACU 43 to keep the drive alive.

After the drive stalled, the Wildcats called on Lineberry again, and once again the freshman delivered, drilling a 51-yard field goal to make cut the deficit to 15-13 with 6:03 left in the contest.  The 51-yard field goal made Lineberry the first kicker in ACU history to hit two field from at least 50 yards in the same game.

Midwestern came out for its biggest series of the season and picked up one first down before punting.  Eskridge got the key play on the drive with a 14-yard scramble to pick up the first down, his fourth big run of the second half.  Eskridge didn't hurt the Wildcats at all with his arm in the second half (1 for 10 for six yards), but his legs definitely hurt.  He ran for 52 yards (80 gross) with most of those coming in the second half.

The Wildcats had one last chance to take the lead, starting at their own 30-yard line with 3:31 to play.  On third-and-4 from the 34, Gale hit Edmund Gates for five yards and a first down.  After a five-yard run, false start penalty and incomplete pass, Gale ran for three yards on third-and-10 setting up the decisive play with 1:05 left in the contest.

On fourth down, Gale -- under heavy pressure from Matt Ellerbrock -- threw up a prayer to Gates that went unanswered turning the ball back over to Midwestern.  The Mustangs were able to run out the clock on the game.

The Wildcats can only hope they didn't run the clock out on their season.