Freedom New Mexico: Liliana Castillo ENMU running back Tony Valenzuela avoids a tackle by Abilene Christian’s Darrien Williams during the second quarter of Saturday’s Lone Star Conference crossover game at Greyhound Stadium. Valenzuela rushed for 105 yards on 20 carries.
BLACKWATER DRAW — Not many football games are decided by the opening coin flip, but it turned out to be an important factor in Saturday’s Lone Star Conference crossover between Eastern New Mexico University and fourth-ranked Abilene Christian.
The Wildcats won the flip, but instead of taking the ball or deferring their choice to the second half, they chose to take the wind at their backs. It paid off in six touchbacks on kickoffs by Spencer Covey, setting up field position for 27 first-quarter points for ACU in a 53-14 victory.
“That’s the first coin flip we’ve lost this season,” ENMU coach Mark Ribaudo said.
Truth be told, that really didn’t decide the game. Abilene Christian (8-0) is just that good.
“My kids played as hard as they could,” Ribaudo said. “They (Wildcats) just had too much talent.”
ACU scored on all five first-quarter possessions — three touchdowns, two field goals. Meantime, the Greyhounds (3-5) earned first downs on two of their first three plays, but went three-and-out four times in the period with sophomore quarterback Wes Wood pooch-punting the ball away each time on fourth down.
“The wind advantage was so big,” Wildcats coach Chris Thomsen said. “The field position really was to our advantage.”
Sophomore quarterback Mitchell Gale threw for five touchdowns and 362 yards for ACU. Wide receiver Edmund Gates caught seven passes for 124 yards, and he and fellow wide-out Kendrick Johnson each grabbed a pair of TD passes.
Johnson weaved past several ENMU defenders for the final TD of the opening period with one second left, giving Covey another chance to kick the ball through the end zone with the wind.
“They spread you out,” Ribaudo said of ACU’s offense. “They had to find a way to put more points on the board for the postseason (games). They’ve got a strong 1-2 punch (between running and passing).”
ENMU pushed the Wildcats, then ranked second in NCAA Division II, last year at Abilene before losing late 44-33.
That wasn’t about to happen this time.
“I think the play of the quarterback was the difference in this year’s game,” Thomsen said of Gale, who was also the starter in 2009. “That’s the difference for us this year — our ability to drop-back pass.”
ENMU’s first score came on a 33-yard pass from Wood to Carl Bouldin midway through the third quarter. Defensive back Curtis Jackson returned an ACU fumble 15 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the final period after the ball was stripped from running back Josh Morgan by ENMU linebacker Joey Mendez.
ENMU plays its home finale at 2 p.m. Saturday against LSC North Division foe Southeastern Oklahoma.