Kats slash ACU upset bid with 44-35 victory

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The Sam Houston State Bearkats shut down the Abilene Christian Wildcats’ upset bid Saturday evening 44-35 in what was the Kats’ last road test of the regular season.

SHSU’s defense set the tone early as they halted the Wildcats’ first drive and forced a punt from inside its own 30-yard line to give the offense the ball. Senior quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe was in sync with his slot receiver immediately as he connected with senior wide receiver Yedidiah Louis three times on the first drive for three first downs. The connections would set up a 23-yard field goal by Tre Hohnstein with 10:06 left in the first quarter to put the Kats out in front 3-0 in what was a windy afternoon.

“The wind was a huge factor,” Briscoe said. “I think gusts got up to 30 mph. I don’t think it affected my [passes] a lot except for a couple deep ones that got hung up.”

Junior linebacker Justin Johnson would step up for the Bearkats defensively and come away with an interception that he would return to the ACU five-yard line.

“I just saw the post route, so I jumped it,” Johnson said. “I thought I was going to get to the end zone. I need to work on my running back skills because I have zero vision.”

It would take just one play for Briscoe to connect with senior tight end Ragan Henderson for a five-yard touchdown to extend SHSU’s lead to 10-0 with 8:22 left to play in the opening quarter.

The Kats defense would continue its first quarter dominance as a sack by freshman defensive lineman Azuka Mgbemena would lead to another Wildcat punt. Briscoe and the offense were unable to capitalize, however, as the Kats defense would be called out to the field again after a fumble by senior running back Corey Avery turned the ball back over to ACU. Senior defensive lineman PJ Hall would penetrate the backfield and thwart a reverse play by ACU that would lead to a three-and-out. Sophomore tight end Daegen Fowler would continue the trend of Bearkats spending time in the ACU backfield as he would block the Wildcats punt to give the Kats great field position.

Briscoe would take over at the ACU 46-yard line where the high-tempo offense would need just three plays to reach the red zone. Briscoe ended up finding junior receiver Davion Davis for an 18-yard touchdown to give SHSU a 17-0 lead with 2:39 left in the first quarter.

On the next defensive series, Hall deflected a pass at the line of scrimmage that led to another ACU punt. The Kats would put together a quick drive, ending with a 35-yard strike from Briscoe to Louis which extended SHSU’s lead to 24-0 with :46 left in the opening quarter.

The Wildcats would have five drives in the opening quarter all ending in punts as the SHSU defense kept them off the board, and the second quarter was the same story for ACU. Wildcat head coach Adam Dorrel called a fake punt one minute into the second quarter that was snuffed out by the SHSU defense as they forced a turnover on downs. The Wildcats would pick up their first defensive stop of the day with 12:30 left in the second quarter as they denied junior running back Remis Bulmer’s fourth down attempt.

The teams would exchange drives before ACU junior cornerback Jamar Mack picked off a pass from Briscoe at the Wildcats’ 38-yard line. A 15-yard roughing the passer penalty moved ACU across midfield and they would use that momentum to cap off a touchdown drive with a three-yard pass from redshirt freshman quarterback Luke Anthony to senior fullback Trevor Crain. SHSU got the ball back with under one minute to play in the opening half after an interception by junior defensive end Derick Roberson. ACU’s defense would make a statement as senior linebacker Bryaon Gates sacked Briscoe on second down with :19 seconds left leading to a turnover on downs. Sophomore safety Royce See closed out the half with a sack and SHSU took a 24-7 lead into the locker room.

The Bearkats received the second half kickoff and had their first offensive drive stopped in their own territory. They would get the ball back quickly, though, after an interception by freshman defensive back Jaylen Thomas. The interception would set up a quck scoring drive as Briscoe hooked up with Davis for their second touchdown of the game and SHSU’s lead would swell to 31-7 with 11:20 in the third quarter.

SHSU committed a rare miscue in the third quarter when a kickoff out of bounds gave ACU good starting field position at their own 35-yard line, a three-and-out would get the offense back on the turf. Despite ACU’s 24-point deficit and failure to capitalize on the penalty, the Wildcats would begin an impressive comeback. An interception by sophomore defensive end Temisan Kuyatsemi on a tipped pass set up a first down and goal for the Wildcats from the ten-yard line. Anthony then found senior wide receiver Troy Grant in the end zone to close the gap 31-14 with 10:09 left in the third. ACU continued to feed on the momentum as a three-and-out brought the Wildcat offense back out at midfield. The drive ended with a field goal attempt that was blocked by Hall.

That block with 6:31 left in the third gave Hall sole possession of the SHSU record for the most blocked kicks (13).

“I thought our whole defensive line played great all game,” head coach K.C. Keeler said. “Obviously, PJ is the leader there. He is one the greatest to ever play here and one of the greatest to ever play FCS football.”

ACU responded on its next offensive possession when a huge risk to go for it on fourth down and 11 resulted in a 27-yard touchdown pass from Anthony to sophomore receiver Justin Miller. The Bearkat lead was trimmed to ten as the Wildcats continued to chip away while SHSU clung to a 31-21 lead with 2:33 left to play in the third quarter. That score would carry over into the fourth quarter when ACU decided to go for it on fourth down and 10 at its own 45-yard line and fail to convert. SHSU then faced a fourth down and three at the ACU four-yard line on the ensuing drive. An incomplete pass intended for Nathan Stewart turned the ball back over to the Wildcats in the shadow of their own end zone.

A quick dump off to sophomore running back Tracy James for 19 yards got ACU moving in the right direction. The Wildcats would march downfield for a 96-yard scoring drive that would be capped off by a three-yard touchdown pass from Anthony to redshirt senior receiver Carl Whitley. James would be a big factor on the drive as he had a pair of carries to go with his two catches out of the backfield.

The Kats offense would continue to drag their paws through the mud as they would be forced to punt yet again.  James would strike again for ACU with an incredible 62-yard run to eventually set up a nine-yard touchdown pass from Anthony to Grant. ACU’s sideline would erupt as the Wildcats grabbed a 35-31 lead with 5:37 remaining in the game.

“We got up so fast, and I think we may have gotten a little complacent there,” Briscoe said. “We kind of got hit in the mouth and changed some things up.”

In what started as a 24-0 lead, SHSU would find themselves down by four points when Briscoe connected with Louis for a 15-yard touchdown to regain the lead 37-35 with 4:24 in the fourth quarter. A punt return by Davis for a touchdown after a defensive stop would make it a 44-35 game with 3:32 left to play. Following the huge special teams play from SHSU, ACU faced a fourth down and three on the ensuing drive from its own 32-yard line with 2:27 left on the game clock. After an SHSU timeout, a pass to Grant would move the sticks for the Wildcats. A crazy finish was brewing in Abilene, and the clock continued to run as ACU would get the next snap off with 2:03 remaining. With 1:07 left, Anthony would find sophomore receiver Josh Fink for a huge 39-yard pickup to get to the SHSU 10-yard line. His next pass, however, would be intercepted by sophomore defensive back Daniel Adams in the end zone to solidify the 44-35 Bearkat victory.

The young ACU squad showed resilience against the Bearkats in what turned out to be a shootout at Anthony Field. In the end, Briscoe’s 24 completions for 350 yards and five touchdowns proved enough to seal a win on the road. Briscoe and Louis were on the same page all game as they connected 11 times for 187 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

“It’s a great win,” Keeler said. “This is the kind of win that you build on in the playoffs because you’re going to be in tight games.”

SHSU improved to 9-1 on the year (7-1 in conference) as they look toward its final game of the regular season next Saturday. The Kats will welcome the Houston Baptist University Huskies (1-9) to Huntsville Nov. 18. The game will be Senior Day at Bowers Stadium and kickoff is slated for 1 p.m. The matchup will be televised live on ESPN3.