In traditional form for an A&M-Commerce – Eastern New Mexico showdown, the Lions and Greyhounds engaged in an offensive shootout on the turf at Memorial Stadium. In the end, Eastern New Mexico's triple option ground attack got the better of A&M-Commerce's strength through the air as the Greyhounds outlast the Lions 42-35 in the regular season finale.
Trailing by two touchdowns midway through the fourth quarter, A&M-Commerce pulled to within seven with just under four minutes to go. The Lions would get one final shot at a victory, needing to go 70 yards in the final 12 seconds, getting down to their own 47-yard line. But A&M-Commerce's hail mary as time expired was intercepted in the endzone, giving Eastern New Mexico a share of the Lone Star Conference title.
The two teams combined for 857 total yards on the afternoon with the Lions holding a slight 435-422 edge for the game. However how those yards were gained came in completely different ways as the Greyhounds rushed for 276 yards on 76 carries while the Lions threw the ball, racking up 392 yards through the air.
The offensive styles were evident in the time of possession battle as Eastern New Mexico had the ball for 40:58, compared to just 19:02 for A&M-Commerce. The Greyhounds were a perfect 6-for-6 inside the red zone while the Lions didn't have a single offensive snap inside the Eastern New Mexico 20-yard line all afternoon.
Quarterback Harrison Stewart had a solid day for A&M-Commerce, completing 26 of his 51 attempts for a career-best 392 yards and five touchdowns as for the second-straight week he connected with wide receiver Seth Smith for three touchdown strikes. Smith finished the day with 10 catches for 175 yards, including the scoring plays of 21, 78 and 33 yards.
Vernon Johnson reeled in eight catches for 143 yards and a touchdown for his eighth 100-yard reception game of the season. Johnson finishes what is the greatest season for a Lion wide receiver in program history, setting the A&M-Commerce record for catches (69), receiving yards (1,345) and receiving touchdowns (13).
The Lion rushing attack struggled once again, however, as A&M-Commerce generated just 43 yards on 15 carries. Ki-Janaven Garrett led the way with 40 of those yards on 11 carries, including a long of 14.
Defensively, senior Tevin Moore saved his best for last, recording a career-best 15 tackles, including three sacks and four tackles for loss. Pablo Vasquez was all over the field as well for A&M-Commerce, recording 14 tackles while senior Stephen Ford added 11 stops for the Lions. Brandon Turner also finished with a pair of sacks for A&M-Commerce and three tackles for loss, posting seven tackles on the afternoon.
Picked as the bottom two teams in the Lone Star Conference standings in the preseason poll, A&M-Commerce and Eastern New Mexico have been arguably the two biggest surprises in the conference season as both came into the afternoon's game with something to play for. A win for the Greyhounds would give them a share of the Lone Star Conference title with Tarleton State while a victory for the Lions would keep A&M-Commerce in the hunt for a possible bowl berth.
Behind the vaunted triple option offense, Eastern New Mexico drew first blood, covering 75 yards over 11 plays. But A&M-Commerce would respond by putting together a four-play, 53-yard drive that burned just 43 seconds off the clock, capped by Stewart's 25-yard pass across the middle to Godfrey.
The Lions would strike again near the end of the first quarter as Smith hauled in the first of his three touchdown passes, bringing in a 21-yarder from Stewart just two plays after Dionte Taylor blocked an Eastern New Mexico punt attempt that gave A&M-Commerce the ball at the Greyhound 30-yard line.
Eastern New Mexico would notch back-to-back extended touchdown drives on their next two possessions, covering 75 yards over 13 plays over 4:54, followed by a 6-play, 62-yard drive that burned 2:27 off the clock.
With Eastern New Mexico leading 21-14, A&M-Commerce wasted little time as on the first play of its ensuing drive, Stewart found Smith along the near sideline who made an incredible one-handed catch near midfield. The junior from Ennis then somehow stayed in bounds, spinning around a defender and racing 78 yards to the endzone, tying the game at 21-21.
A&M-Commerce's defense then made some noise of its own as on the Greyhounds first play of their ensuing drive, senior Marcus Fore had an authoritative hit on ENMU's Christian Long, forcing the ball loose as the Lions recovered at the Greyhound 28-yard line. Two plays later, Stewart found Johnson in the corner of the endzone from 25 yards out, giving Johnson all three single-season receiving records and putting A&M-Commerce on top 28-21, a lead the Lions would take into halftime.
After putting together an offensive showcase in the first two quarters, Eastern New Mexico was able to slow down the tempo in the second half. The Greyhounds would notch three-straight touchdowns, putting together extended drives on each. ENMU's Jacob Johnson pulled in a 14-yard pass from Jeremy Buurma with 8:44 remaining in the fourth, capping an 11-play, 56-yard drive and giving the Greyhounds a daunting 42-28 lead.
A&M-Commerce wasn't about to go down quietly, however, as the Lions responded again with the Stewart-to-Smith connection from 33-yards out, trimming the Greyhound lead to 42-35 with 4:49 remaining.
The Lions defense forced a big Greyhound stop, giving A&M-Commerce the ball back at its own 20 with 1:58 remaining. But the drive would end as the Lions turned the ball over on downs with 1:09 remaining as it seemed Eastern New Mexico would run out the clock.
Thanks to some wise clock management by A&M-Commerce, the Lions got the one thing they wanted – one final chance to seal their own fate. With the ball on its own 30 yard line and 12 seconds remaining, the Lions were able to get as close as its own 47 before Stewart's final hail mary into the endzone was intercepted, thwarting the comeback effort.
Despite the loss, the 2013 season is one that will be remembered for quite some time around the Commerce community. The Lions recorded their first winning season, notching a pair of victories over ranked opponents. A&M-Commerce knocked off two of its biggest rivals in Tarleton State and A&M-Kingsville to capture both the President's Trophy and the Chennault Cup, while setting a handful of program records in the process.