The 23rd-ranked Midwestern State Mustangs escaped with a 30-24 win over Texas A&M University-Commerce at Memorial Stadium on Sept. 28.
That’s right, escaped. An A&M-Commerce onside kick attempt in the waning minutes tumbled into the hands of a Midwestern defender, ensuring victory for the visitors. Only then was the outcome decided. Considering how the Lions had played in the fourth quarter, it’s a safe bet the Mustangs were more than a little relieved.
If you didn’t watch or listen (ahem) to the game, here’s what happened. One of the better Division II teams in the country – with a bulldozer running game, a big-play defense and talent-rich special teams – rolled into Commerce. To make the task harder for the Lions, a misty rain saturated the sky all evening. That was no disaster for the run-based Mustangs, but a concern for the pass-happy Lions.
Toward the end of a fairly evenly played first quarter, which closed with A&M-Commerce down 7-3, the Lions hit a rough patch. The offense sputtered. To make matters worse, quarterback Tyrik Rollison threw two interceptions, the second of which led to a touchdown.
Despite the pickoffs, the Lions defense played admirably amidst adversity. The A&M-Commerce “D” held the Mustangs scoreless on back-to-back trips near the Lions goal line. One drive ended on downs, the other ended with a fumble. On Midwestern’s third consecutive drive deep into A&M-Commerce territory, the Mustangs finally converted. The Lions trailed 17-10 at halftime.
The third quarter began inauspiciously. A&M-Commerce gave up a big punt return that set up a touchdown which stretched the Midwestern State lead to 24-10.
After that, rather than despair, the Lions showed the heart and poise that even at this early stage of its development, this team is capable of showing.
The A&M-Commerce defense kept the Mustangs out of the end zone for the rest of the game. Considering that the Mustangs were highly motivated to pick up some insurance and put the game away, that’s saying something.
Meanwhile, the Lions offense found some spark. Rollison led A&M-Commerce to two fourth-quarter touchdowns. But the Lions ran out of clock and couldn’t come up with one more for a miracle victory.
Midwestern won by doing the things good teams do. Even during those times when the Lions had momentum, the Mustangs came up with big plays.
Good teams convert – at least some of the time – on third and long. Two key such conversions kept Mustang drives alive when they seemed all but dead. Both of those drives ended in field goals – the two field goals that ended up being the margin of victory.
Good teams have a good kicker. The Mustangs’ Greg Saladino fits that description. Those two field goals were attempts from 39 and 43 yards – pretty far from chip-shots in the watery shrouds that soaked the field and the football all night.
Three positives to take away from a loss that surely hurt, even though it was a game hardly anyone outside of Hunt County thought the Lions could win:
1. The Defense. Don’t look to the stat sheet for evidence of the rock-solid performance by the A&M-Commerce defense in this one. None of the numbers jump out. Midwestern State’s offense racked up 273 yards on the ground and 99 in the air. Nothing extraordinary, but the context is that the Mustangs actually are an extraordinary team on offense. The Lions contained them. More than that, A&M-Commerce came up with some big stops. The Lions didn’t get every big stop, true. But this defense more than proved its worth. There were some bone-crunching hits in the mix as well. This defense is effective and fun to watch.
2. The Running Game. Again, the stat sheet doesn’t show anything dramatic. But the offensive line did find ways to make some room for freshman running back Ki-Janaven Garrett, who finished with 78 yards on 19 carries and a touchdown. The story here isn’t so much one of excellence as one of improvement. A&M-Commerce hadn’t shown much in the running department, outside of the capable scrambling of Rollison. Garrett’s good outing doesn’t mean the Lions’ woes on the ground are necessarily over. At 5-foot-9, 180 pounds, Garrett can dart past lumbering linemen, but the Lions need more weapons out of the backfield. A&M-Commerce would particularly benefit from a big, sure-handed back for short-yardage situations. But the fact that the Lions seem to be developing a legitimate ground game is news.
3. Plan B. A successful football team stays in games, and sometimes wins them, even when its featured mode of attack isn’t in top form. The Lions love the big pass play. But for much of the Midwestern State game, the deep ball wasn’t there. Rollison (17-39-2, 222 yards, 2 TD) did connect for long gains with Seth Smith (48 yards) and Stacy Howard (32 yards). But tight coverage, pressure up front, rain and intangibles all conspired to thwart the Lions’ ability to execute the bomb. A&M-Commerce adjusted, going for short- and mid-yardage throws, with running plays mixed in. The Lions had to go to Plan B, and while they couldn’t manage an upset win with Plan B, they stayed in the game until the closing moments. The A&M-Commerce offense is more than a one-dimensional long-ball attack. The Lions can be dangerous in a number of ways.
There’ll come a time when A&M-Commerce fans won’t be able to feel good about coming within six points of a team the likes of Midwestern State. At some point in the future (the near future?) nothing less than a victory will do, whether the opponent is ranked 23rd or third.
But on a wet night at the back end of September, facing a formidable opponent, the Lions played with guts and composure and execution. The loss felt bad, but the game – parts of it, anyway – felt good.
Next time A&M-Commerce plays a ranked team, the word “escape” might not fit the story.