Nov. 14, 2009

Courtesy Abilene Christian Athletics

WICHITA FALLS -- Last Saturday, the ACU Wildcats left Memorial Stadium after losing to Midwestern State, wondering if their season would continue.

They left the same stadium Saturday with a much different feeling after they rallied from a 14-7 halftime deficit to beat Midwestern State, 24-14, in a first-round NCAA Division II playoff game.

The Wildcats' reward for the rally is a return trip to Maryville, Mo., where they will take on Midwestern State next Saturday in a second-round playoff game at Bearcat Stadium.

ACU's first-half offensive effort put up just 60 total yards and no points as the Wildcats' only first-half points came when Dennis Campbell returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a score.

But the Mustangs -- who did nothing over the final three quarters of last Saturday's 15-13 win over ACU -- put up 186 yards of offense and two late scores to grab a 14-7 halftime lead.

"I told the guys at halftime that our offensive effort in the first half was my fault because we tried to play it a little bit conservatively," Thomsen said.  "I told them we were going to open it up a bit more in the second half and try to get some things going."

And the Wildcats did just that.  But first the defense made another big play in a string of them Saturday afternoon.

MSU (9-3) had the ball first and put together two big plays to move down to the ACU 38-yard line.  But the ACU defense came up with a sack of Kevin Eskridge, who was dropped eight times Saturday. That forced a punt, but ACU wasn't able to do anything with the football.

On Midwestern's next possession, the Mustangs moved the ball to the ACU 40-yard line, but Eskridge was pressured into an interception by Major Culbert at the ACU 19-yard line.

The Wildcat offense trotted onto the field having posted just 63 yards of offense on the day.  And after two penalties ACU's drive actually started on its own 5-yard line.

After two Reggie Brown runs moved the ball out to the 18-yard line, ACU's redshirt freshman quarterback, Mitchell, Gale, made his first big play of the day, hitting Terrell Woodall for a 15-yard gain on third-and-11.

ACU would face third-and-1 on its own 42 when the Wildcats dialed up a flea-flicker that was intercepted.  But the Wildcats caught a break when the Mustangs were whistled for defensive holding, giving ACU a first down at the MSU 48-yard line.

A couple of plays later, Gale found Kendrick Johnson for eight yards to the 16-yard line, and on the next play Gale hit Gates from 16 yards out for the game-tying score with 1:47 left in the third quarter.

"The throw to Terrell was really big," Gale said.  "It really kind of settled us down offensively and we were able to punch it in a few plays later.  The big thing for us the entire second half was the way the offensive line.  We had great pass protection and they did a tremendous job in the run game."

ACU's defense forced a three-and-out, and Jose Martinez shanked a punt to give ACU the ball at its own 43-yard line to start the fourth quarter.

On first-and-25, Brown broke loose for a 28-yard run, and then Johnson caught a 3-yard pass to move the ball to the MSU 41-yard line.  Gale then Johnson with a short pass over the middle, and Johnson did the rest, dodging a couple of MSU defenders and going into the end zone to make it a 21-14 ACU lead with 13:42 left in the contest.

"It was nice to be able to be a part of the game plan again," said Johnson, who has missed significant portions with injuries.  "I was glad I was able to help my team get a win."

On the second play of Midwestern's next drive, Eskridge was sacked by Marvin Jones and fumbled, and it was recovered by Arthur Johnson, giving the ball back to ACU at the MSU 19-yard line with 13:06 left.

The Wildcats moved the ball down to the MSU 2-yard line before a holding penalty moved ACU back to the 13.  ACU had to settle for a Morgan Lineberry 25-yard field goal to give the Wildcats a 24-14 lead with 9:57 to play.

The Mustangs did nothing on their next drive, punting on their ensuing drive and turning the ball back over to ACU with 7:04 to play.  And while the Wildcats didn't score on their drive, they took 3:44 off the clock before Mark Sprague drilled a 69-yard punt that was caught by BeeJay Mathis, who slipped down at the 2-yard line.

But Eskridge put together his best drive of the game, moving MSU 98 on 11 plays, capping the drive with a 7-yard TD pass to Andy Tanner that made it 24-21 with 1:06 to play.

The Wildcats, though, put an end to the contest when Arthur Johnson recovered the onside kick, and Gale took a couple of knees to give ACU the win.

"That was an unbelievable game between two teams who left everything they had out on the field," Thomsen said.  "Credit Midwestern for continuing to battle when we got the lead, but give our guys credit for coming back after the way we played in the first half.

"We grew up as a team today," Thomsen said.  "We had a lot of things going against us, but I never saw guys get down or disappointed in each other.  We took a step today, and I'm really proud of my team."