Lions thump Steers in finale, 24-13
SAGU getting close to big season
Defense, Ekanem force 4 turnovers
WAXAHACHIE, Texas -- A quick start by the offense and big plays by the defense led Southwestern Assemblies of God University to a satisfying 24-13 win over Texas College in the season finale for both teams.
A pair of rushing touchdowns in the game’s first eleven minutes gave the Lions a 15-0 lead. It was never seriously threatened the rest of the game thanks to a defense that forced four turnovers, two inside the SAGU five yard line.
The win gave SAGU a 4-6 record for the second straight season, and equaled the four-win total for the third time in five years. It has been the best stretch of play in the Lions young history.
There are 17 independent schools in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) this fall, and only three have won more than SAGU.
Considering the Lions had three losses that were within one play in the enemy red zone of being wins, the season was close to having a magical finish. "Next year" has never sounded so good.
It was also the second win in a row and third in four games over Texas College.
Played in conditions best suited for kites and cormorants, both teams eschewed the passing game, and even punts. Prevailing northerly winds, gusting between 25 and 40 miles per hour, forced ground games on the Lions and Steers.
Neither had thriving rushing attacks this year. But it was no surprise that the two clubs ran the ball on 68% of the plays.
The difference was the Lions defense stepped up and made big plays and big stops. They held the Steers to 271 yards on 79 plays, an average 3.4 yards per snap.
Forcing turnovers was the fruit of a bending-but-not-breaking defense this season. The Lions picked off one pass and recovered three fumbles; two of the turnovers coming in the red zone.
In fact, during the second half of the season SAGU made just seven miscues while squeezing opponents for 21. The team made less turnovers than their foes in all five games, translating into three wins.
Taking care of the football was a primary goal this season, according to Head Coach Jesse Godding. The team finished #11 in the nation with a +9 in the category.
They reduced give-aways from 29 to 22, and increased take-aways from 23 to 31. A year ago the Lions were 61st in turnover margin (-6).
Only one team in the NAIA had more interceptions than SAGU's 21. Ottawa University (Ks) had 24. The Braves are 8-2. The Lions pass defense ranked #10 nationally (145.0 yard per game).
First Half Revisited
On the game’s first possession, junior safety Brad Heathcock (Frisco, Tx / Wakeland HS) forced QB Johnny Thomas to cough up the ball, and junior defensive tackle D.J. Johnson (Detroit, Mi / Parkview HS) smothered it at the SAGU 47.
The Lions marched 53 yards in seven plays to score. A pair of six yard runs by junior QB Reid Golson (Grandview, Tx / Howard Payne Univ., Grandview HS) and another by freshman halfback Landry Martinez (Godley, Tx / East Texas Baptist Univ., Godley HS) kick-started the drive.
Golson hit sophomore Dylan Moore (Denton, Tx / Guyer HS) on a crossing pattern for 19-yards to the Steers 21.
Martinez knifed inside and veered to the right from eight yards out for a lead the Lions would never relinquish.
Two series later, SAGU struck again, quickly.
After sophomore Jason Bethel (Red Oak, Tx / Red Oak HS) dropped Akedio Sharp for a loss of one on a fourth and two, the Lions took over at the Steers 45.
A six-yard burst by Cade Leuschner (Waco, Tx / Robinson HS) set up a third-and-one play from the Texas College 36 yard line.
The sophomore took a direct snap from R.J. Adame (Keller, Tx / Central HS) and saw no opening. He noticed 330-pound sophomore right tackle Mitchell Grimes (McKinney, Tx / North HS) and bounced right, outside of his seal block.
“The next thing I saw was daylight,” Leuschner (LUSH-nuhr) said afterwards. “It was all clear on the right.”
The Steers had packed the line. Once he cleared the line of scrimmage, all the Steers saw was #28 getting smaller and smaller as Leuschner sprinted the distance. It was his fourth TD this year and seventh of his career.
What followed was his customary finger to the sky salute. Senior Nic Morphew (Grandview, Tx / Howard Payne Univ., Grandview HS) darted three yards for a two-point conversion run.
Southwestern led 15-0 with 3:39 remaining in the first quarter. The defense made it stand.
The Lions added three field goals, in the second, third and fourth quarters, by James Gish (Waxahachie, Tx / Waxahachie HS). They covered 27, 34 and 23 yards. The first and last were against the wind.
The turning point of the game came midway through the second period.
Texas College had scored on an 11-yard pass from Thomas to Kevan Hall to begin the quarter.
On their next possession the Steers moved to the Lions 19. A fourth-and-one pass was broken up by senior cornerback Nick Ekanem (Richmond, Tx / Arkansas State Univ., B.F. Terry HS). A SAGU penalty nullified the play, moving the chains for the Tyler-based team.
Running back Taylor Gray took a handoff and went off right tackle for five yards before meeting Heathcock.
The junior safety, attracted to the ball like lightning to an oak tree, forced his second fumble of the day. Ekanem scooped it up and darted 52 yards. It set up shop for the offense at the TC 39.
The Steers countered, rising up and stopping the Lions on downs.
“Old Man Mo” was getting friendly with the visitors. They cruised downfield with what could have been the tying touchdown.
Ekanem (EE-kon-um) would have nothing to do with it.
Thomas threw deep on fourth down from the SAGU 41. Ekanem leapt early and beat 6’3 wide receiver Jamal Johnson to the ball, snatching an interception at the Lions’ two-yard line.
The turn of events sparked an 88-yard, 14 play march by the Lions.
Big plays included a 30-yard toss to sophomore Jeremy McDonald (San Antonio, Tx / Cornerstone Christian), 17 yard pass and a 12 yard run from scrimmage – both by Martinez.
Golson found junior Trevor McKinley (Arlington, Tx / Seguin HS) deep for 26 and a first down at the TC 10.
The 14-play, 88-yard drive into the teeth of the wind died when Golson’s fade to McDonald in the end zone was ruled out of bounds.
"I caught it," he said, "but couldn't get my foot down. Missed it by less than a foot."
Gish trotted onto the field to try a 27-yard kick to salvage the drive. On his approach his plant foot slipped, and he drilled a low, line-drive kick. He somehow muscled it through, though the ball fluttered and screamed as though it was a duck.
The 18-7 halftime margin would, like the Lions defense, weather the storm.
Second Half Summary
Gish’s second kick came after the Lions special teams set up the offense in great field position.
Texas College assembled a wind-aided drive, moving to the SAGU 11. On second and ten, a botched handoff was recovered by Lions’ junior linebacker Ben Atkinson (Glenpool, Ok / Glenpool HS).
The offense, working with efficiency of clockwork, rolled 73 yards in 15 time-munching plays. McKinley’s 31-yard catch and run enabled the drive to end on a third Gish kick.
The left-footed junior split the uprights for a 24-7 lead.
Again, the Lions’ D stiffened its neck and roared.
After advancing 35 yards in 12 plays, the Steers had to settle for a 39-yard Houston Creighton field goal. It was blocked by freshman outside linebacker Dalton Snyder (Ennis, Tx / Ennis HS) and recovered by freshman cornerback Shakeem Taylor (Mesquite, Tx / Poteet HS).
The Steers finally completed a drive in the second half, when Thomas flipped a fourth and goal pass to Ryan Mitchell from three yards away with 2:34 to play.
SAGU's McKinley grabbed the onside kick. The Lions ran out the clock with Golson in the victory formation at the Steers 13.
Southwestern outgained Texas College, 303 yards to 271.
Martinez, Golson and Leuschner ran for 53, 51 and 47 yards on 18, 16 and four carries respectively.
Golson completed 10 of 23 passes for 146 yards. His only interception came on a deflected pass.
McKinley led the receiving corps with three for 57 yards. McDonald, Moore and Martinez each snared two apiece. Craig Campbell, Jr. (Pinole, Cal / Pinole Valley HS) had one.
The defense, however, bowed up and made plays throughout the day.
Sophomore linebacker Rockie Davis (Santa Fe, Tx / Santa Fe HS) was everywhere. He racked up 16 tackles, ten of them unassisted. He also made three tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
"Mo" Mansaray (Dallas, Tx / Conrad HS) and Heathcock registered nine and eight stops, while LB Kendall Evers (Danbury, Tx / Danbury HS) added six stops.
Defensive End Zach Jackson (Wray, Co / Wray HS) had an active day, making five tackles, while four players each had four; Taylor, Johnson, Snyder and senior Richard Adewola (Richmond, Tx / B.F. Terry HS). The unit combined for 11 tackles for lost yardage.
The team also broke up six passes, two by Ekanem. His pick was his eighth of the season and his 18th of his career – both school records. He finished fourth in the NAIA in thefts and in passes defended.
A season review will be posted in the coming weeks.