Story and photo courtesy of Abilene Christian Athletics
ABILENE, Texas – Mitchell Gale threw for 284 yards and running back Darrell Cantu-Harkless was at his all-purpose best as Abilene Christian University turned the defensive tables on 21st-ranked University of West Alabama, upsetting the No. 21-ranked Tigers in overtime, 22-16, in Shotwell Stadium.
The surprising Wildcats, pitching a shutout through three quarters and limiting the Tigers to 129 total yards in the first half, survived a furious UWA rally in the fourth quarter to improve their overall record to 6-4 and drop UWA to 7-3. The game was another in the First-and-10 Challenge series between teams from the Lone Star and Gulf South conferences. Earlier this year, ACU defeated GSC member Delta State, 34-28, in Cleveland, Miss.
ACU's 225 yards of offense before halftime nearly matched what UWA had averaged giving up for an entire game (242 yards) this season. The Tigers, who entered the game with the nation's No. 2 overall defense and best total pass defense, had few answers for ACU's short- to mid-range passing game.
They also had few answers for Cantu-Harkless, a junior running back who led his team with nine catches for 113 yards and one touchdown, 13 carries for 58 rushing yards, a 71-yard punt return and a 46-yard kickoff return. His 14-yard TD pass from Gale in overtime provided the Wildcats' winning margin.
ACU's defense rose to the occasion in overtime, with defensive back Steven Ford breaking up a fourth-down pass on the left sideline to seal the win. UWA, which outgained ACU in total yards, 395 to 371, had clinched at least a tie for the GSC title last week with a 37-7 win over Delta State.
The Wildcats took a 3-0 lead on the game's opening drive when Ryan Owens kicked a 34-yard field goal. The Wildcats forced UWA to punt on its first possession, but a scintillating 71-yard punt return by Cantu-Harkless gave his team the ball on the Tigers' 9-yard line. Three plays later, Charcandrick West's 1-yard dive up the middle gave ACU a 10-0 advantage.
Owens began the second half for ACU the same way he did the first half, with a field goal. His 24-yarder at the 3:23 mark put the Wildcats ahead, 13-0. The 16-play, 71-yard drive consumed seven minutes of time.
West Alabama answered with a 13-play, 75-yard drive early in the fourth quarter, capped by a 10-yard touchdown pass from 5-foot, 7-inch quarterback Kyle Caldwell to wide receiver Malik Lofton with 12:34 left.
Owens came to the Wildcats' rescue again, kicking his third field goal of the game, a 40-yarder at the 8:42 mark.
The Tigers pulled closer when Caldwell tossed his second touchdown pass of the quarter, a 34-yarder to Chad Toocheck with 6:06 remaining. However, ACU linebacker Thor Woerner blocked the extra point attempt, preserving a 3-point edge for the Wildcats, 16-13.
ACU's next drive stalled, setting up UWA on its own 32-yard-line following a Steven Covey punt. From there, Caldwell engineered his third scoring drive of the fourth quarter, capped by a game-tying 30-yard field goal by Ryne Smith with 18 seconds left.
Cantu-Harkless returned the ensuing kickoff 46 yards to the Tigers' 46-yard line, but Morgan Lineberry's 63-yard field goal attempt fell short as time expired, forcing overtime.
ACU got the ball first in overtime, and earned one first down via its running game. On third down and 10 from the 10-yard line, Gale's swing pass to Cantu-Harkless put the ball in the end zone and the Wildcats up, 22-16. Owens' point-after attempt was wide left.
On UWA's first possession of overtime and the Tigers facing a fourth-down-and-4 from the 19-yard line, Ford tipped a Caldwell pass intended for Toocheck, setting off a raucous celebration by the home team.
UWA alternated quarterbacks throughout the game, with Caldwell completing 16 of 24 passes or 165 yards and two TDs, and Gary Johnston rushing 12 times for 65 yards. Johnston completed five of six passes for 75 yards.
West had 12 carries for 55 yards for ACU. Wide receiver Tony Gabriel caught five passes for 71 yards and Darian Hogg added another five for 46 yards. Gale completed 24 of 42 passes and was sacked four times.
Next Saturday, the Wildcats conclude play as a member of NCAA Division II and the LSC when they travel to San Antonio to play University of the Incarnate Word at 7:30 p.m. ACU and UIW will be new members of the Division I Southland Conference beginning next fall.