Senior wide receiver Taylor Gabriel had his biggest night of the young season Saturday night as he caught three touchdown passes – including a 75-yard touchdown pass from John David Baker – as Abilene Christian University rolled to a 52-28 win over New Mexico Highlands in a non-conference football game at Shotwell Stadium.
The win pushes the Wildcats – an NCAA Division I FCS independent in 2013 – to 3-0, while the NCAA Division II Cowboys fall to 1-1. ACU now hits the road for all but one of its remaining eight games this season. The Wildcats play FCS powerhouse Illinois State University next Saturday in Normal, Ill., at 6 p.m. CST.
ACU – the nation’s highest-scoring team through three games – scored touchdowns twice in the final 35 seconds of the first half and twice in the first three minutes of the second half to put away the Cowboys after a defensive struggle for most of the first two quarters. Baker completed 25 of 36 passes for 392 yards and five TDs, giving him 14 on the season. Baker hit Gabriel nine times for 160 yards and three touchdowns, including that 75-yarder late in the third quarter that made it 45-14 and really put the Cowboys away.
The 196 points by ACU set a school record for most scored in a three-game stretch, breaking the previous mark of 181 in 2008. Against the Cowboys, five turnovers – four fumbles and one interception – played big roles in dressing the Wildcat offense for success.
The teams were engaged in a 10-7 slugfest late in the first half when the Wildcats pieced together a nine-play, 80-yard drive that ended when Baker hit Darrell Cantu-Harkless with an 8-yard touchdown pass to make it 17-7 with 35 seconds left in the first half. Harkless caught the pass in the right flat and jitterbugged his way into the end zone for the score.
On the first play of the ensuing drive, Thor Woerner recovered a fumble that gave ACU possession at the NMHU 15-yard line. Two plays later, Gabriel’s sliding catch of a Baker pass into the end zone put ACU further ahead, 24-7, with nine seconds left.
ACU’s first drive of the second half was a five-play, 64-yarder capped by Charcandrick West’s 1-yard run at the 13:21 mark. Nik Grau’s PAT made the new score 31-7.
On the Cowboy’s next possession, ACU defensive lineman Nick Finney picked up a fumble forced by linebacker Blake Rudd at the Cowboy 18-yard line and rumbled into the end zone with just over two minutes gone in the third quarter.
The four straight Wildcat TDs were scored in a 6-minute span at mid-game.
The Cowboys fought back with an 80-yard drive of their own midway through the quarter when Lewis found Harrison in the back of the end zone for an 18-yard TD pass. Zach Tapia’s successful PAT shortened ACU’s lead to 38-14.
But Baker answered for the Wildcats on their next play from scrimmage, connecting on a long pass to Gabriel on which the speedy wide receiver juked himself away from double coverage after the catch to complete a 75-yard scoring play. ACU’s lead grew again to 45-14.
Gabriel and Baker struck again on ACU’s next drive, a nine-play, 75-yard effort capped when Gabriel snagged an eight-yard pass from his quarterback in the back of the end zone with 55 seconds left in the third quarter, giving his team a 52-14 advantage.
ACU linebacker Justin Stephens recovered a Cowboy fumble on the game’s second play, giving the Wildcats the ball at the NMHU 23-yard line. Grau’s 35-yard field goal put the Wildcats on the board with just over two minutes expired in the first quarter.
On the first play of ACU’s third drive, Hogg caught a long pass from Baker, juked his defender, tore away from an attempted shirttail tackle and sprinted into the end zone to complete an 87-yard scoring play with 6:36 left in the quarter. Grau’s PAT upped the Wildcat lead to 10-0.
The Cowboys got on the scoreboard when quarterback Lewis hit wide receiver Michael Harrison on a 14-yard TD pass over the middle on the last play of the first quarter, cutting ACU’s lead to 10-7. That set the stage for ACU’s scoring flurry in the late second quarter and early third quarter.
West led ACU in rushing with 65 yards on 14 carries. Hogg had four catches for 98 yards among nine Wildcats who caught Baker passes on the evening.
Information provided by ACU athletics department.