On the 45th anniversary of their 1972 NAIA National Championship title, the No. 8 Texas A&M University-Commerce football team defeated Harding University 31-17 on the exact same field to punch its ticket to the NCAA Division II Championship game. In front of a stadium-record 10,120 fans, the Lions rallied from an early deficit to score 17 consecutive points in the first half and iced the game with a 90-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter.
The win brings the Lions to 13-1 on the season and they advance to the school’s first NCAA Championship game since the school joined Division II in 1981. The Bisons fall to 11-4 on the year.
The Lions will travel to Kansas City, Kan., and Children’s Mercy Park for the Division II National Championship game on Saturday. The Lions draw fourth-seeded West Florida, who defeated No. 1 seed Indiana University of Pennsylvania earlier in the day. The game will be played at at 5 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN2, the Watch ESPN app, and on the Lion Sports Network.
Tickets in A&M-Commerce sections are already available at LionAthletics.com/KCTickets. Championship Central will be published Sunday.
INSIDE THE BOX SCORE
– Luis Perez went 24-of-34 for 288 yards and a pair of touchdowns. With 3:50 left in the fourth quarter, he hit D’Arthur Cowan for a 90-yard touchdown pass to put the game out of reach.
– E.J. Thompson rushed for 75 yards on 13 carries. Carandal Hale added 15 yards and a touchdown run. Gabriel Rodriguezalso rushed for a touchdown.
– Cowan had 101 yards receiving, including the 90-yard game clincher. Vincent Hobbs added 97 yards on seven catches with a 3-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter.
– Brucks Saathoff had 14 tackles and a forced fumble. Garrett Blubaugh had nine tackles, while Neema Behbahani and Peyton Searcy had eight tackles apiece against the run-heavy triple-option Harding offense.
– Yusef Sterling-Lowe had an interception and two tackles for loss.
– Kristov Martinez had a 32-yard field goal in the third quarter and made all four of his PAT attempts. He also helped hold HU to just one yard on kickoff returns with important touchbacks and directional kickoffs.
– The Lions averaged 6.6 yards per play and were a perfect 4-of-4 in the red zone. Both teams had one turnover in the game.
– The game was played in front of Ernest Hawkins Field at Memorial Stadium record crowd of 10,120.
– This is the first Division II National Championship appearance for any A&M-Commerce sport since the school joined the NCAA in 1981.
HOW IT HAPPENED
The Bisons took the opening kickoff and literally ran with it. They had three running plays on their first drive, including a 20-yard opening run and a 51-yard touchdown run to take a 7-0 lead less than two minutes into the game.
The Lions responded on their opening drive, moving down the field for a touchdown of their own. In contrast to Harding’s rush attack, the Lions had seven passes to open the game, including a 12-yard pass to Hobbs, a 13-yard pass to Marquis Wimberly, and an 11-yard completion to Kelan Smith. After a penalty put the ball on the two, Rodriguez took the ball and plowed into the end zone to tie the game at 7-all.
Harding had a 14-play drive on their next possession, but it was halted by an interception by Sterling-Lowe. The Lions could not capitalize on the interception however, being forced to punt. HU punted the ball right back and, with the wind, pinned the Lions deep in their territory with an 83-yard boot.
The Lions were forced to punt into the wind and HU had good field position for their next drive. However, the Bisons were forced to punt again as the Lion defense held strong, including a Searcy sack to stop the drive. The Bison downed the punt at the one-yard line.
It did not stop the Lions however. After two incompletions and a run brought up fourth down, A&M-Commerce elected to try some trickery and punter Tristan Perry took the snap and looked to throw. He found Corey Smallwood for a first down to extend the drive. The Lions then caught fire as Perez found Hobbs for an 18-yard gain on the next play and Thompson then ran for 12 yards. The drive was also aided by three Bison penalties. Near the goal line, Perez found Hobbs for a three-yard touchdown pass to give the Lions a 14-7 lead, which is where the half ended.
The Lions added to their lead on the opening drive of the third quarter. Thompson had a rush of 24 yards and Hobbs had a 31-yard reception to take the Lions into the red zone. The Lions could not punch the ball into the end zone and elected for a 32-yard field goal from Martinez, who split the uprights to give A&M-Commerce a 17-7 lead.
Harding had a methodical drive on its next chance, rushing 10 times in 12 plays. HU also completed their first pass of the game, a 13-yard catch. The Lion defense buckled down once the Bisons crossed midfield. HU chose to attempt a long field goal, but it was short of the mark, giving the Lions good field position. The Lions drove to midfield before a fumble from Thompson gave the Bisons the ball back. HU capitalized, using nine plays to go 51-yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. The Lion lead was cut to 17-14 with 14:33 to play.
The momentum swung right back to the Lions as they scored a touchdown of their own on the next drive. Hobbs had a 19-yard reception and Perez rushed for a 10-yard gain to move the sticks. After a Perez pass to Smith put the Lions 11 yards away, Hale did the rest, cutting through a hole into the end zone to give A&M-Commerce a 24-14 lead with under nine minutes to play.
The Bisons made it a one-score game on their next drive. After focusing on the run, it was a 37-yard pass play from HU that led them into field goal range. A 30-yard boot was good to bring the score to 24-17 with four minutes to play.
It took just one play for the Lions to seal the game. After a five-yard kickoff return pinned the Lions at the 10 yard line, Perez found Cowan on the right side, close to the line of scrimmage. Cowan followed his blocks, cut inside and saw nothing but green turf ahead of him. He eluded one final would-be tackler and got into the end zone, scoring the 90-yard touchdown to give A&M-Commerce a 31-17 lead.
The Bison were forced to air out the ball on their final drive. After allowing two first downs, the Lion defense put the pressure on HU. Kieston Carter recorded a sack on third down and a Dominique Ramsey pass breakup gave the Lions the ball back on downs. After two kneel downs in victory formation, head coach Colby Carthel received an ice bath from the water jug as the team celebrated. The Lions punched their ticket to the Division II title game.