The No. 7-seeded Texas A&M University-Commerce Lions were flying high after a 23-3 victory over No. 3-seed Colorado School of Mines Saturday in Golden, Colorado.
This marks the second week in a row that A&M-Commerce has toppled an undefeated team.
The game was played in near-freezing temperatures with constant winds of 20 to 30 miles per hour. Wind gusts up to 80 mph were forecasted. Dozens of workers cleared out Marv Kay Stadium of more than two feet of snow earlier in the week, and a further two inches were cleared out the night before the game.
This was the first meeting between the two teams. The Lions used a suffocating defense and some special teams trickery to push them forward to victory.
It looked as if A&M-Commerce would get on the board first as they played sharp on offense early. The team's first drive ended up stalling, though, and Jake Viquez attempted a 35-yard field goal. Viquez' field goal was blocked, and the Lions were kept off of the board.
On their ensuing possession, the Orediggers went deep into the A&M-Commerce red zone, but could not break through and settled for a field goal from Scott Marshall. Colorado Mines' struggles in the red zone would become a recurring theme throughout the game.
Things looked to turn from bad to worse for the Lions, as quarterback Miklo Smalls had a pass intercepted. On the ensuing drive, The Orediggers threatened to add to their lead, as freshman quarterback John Matocha found Mason Karp for a 44 yard pass right in front of the endzone. However, Karp fumbled the ball while being tackled before scoring, and the ball was recovered by A&M-Commerce.
The Lions capitalized on the mistake, with Smalls breaking free for a 64-yard touchdown run on their next drive to put the blue and gold in the lead right before the end of the first quarter.
In the second quarter, Colorado Mines had another golden opportunity to take the lead again, but Camron Mayberry had the ball knocked loose at the Lions' five yard line, and A&M-Commerce recovered.
Neither team could put points on the board in the second frame. The Lions recovered another fumble when Matocha was sacked in the final minute. A&M-Commerce remained up 7-3 at halftime.
Early in the third quarter it was now time for Colorado Mines to swing the momentum, as the Lions' Ryan Stokes lost a fumble near midfield. But it was all for naught as Matocha went for it on fourth down in A&M-Commerce territory, but failed to reach the first down marker.
What happened on the Lions' next drive was a drastic turning point in the contest. After stalling out, Viquez was brought out again to try a field goal, this time from 51 yards with the wind at his back. However, A&M-Commerce had no intention of kicking.
Backup quarterback Preston Wheeler, who is the holder on field goals, stood up and took the snap, and fired a rainbow pass to a wide-open Tyler Guice who easily waltzed into the endzone unabated for a 34-yard score. Viquez' subsequent extra point attempt was blocked, but the Lions still had a two-possession advantage.
It all fell apart for the Orediggers, as Matocha was sacked and fumbled the ball again on the next drive. Jemal Williams then finished the job with a three-yard touchdown run. At the end of the third quarter, A&M-Commerce was up 20-3.
In the fourth quarter, Matocha was pulled from the game and replaced with senior Ben Bottlinger, who was promptly sacked on his first play in. Colorado Mines once again drove to within the Lions' 10 yard line, but failed to find paydirt and turning the ball over on downs.
A&M-Commerce added a field goal from Viquez, and even successfully attempted another fake field goal, this time with Wheeler finding Eric Hebert for 17 yards to get the first down and continue running the clock out.
The Orediggers could not break through the stout Lion defense for the rest of the game, and A&M-Commerce came away with the 23-3 win as the horn sounded.
Matocha completed 17 of 23 passes for Colorado Mines for a total of 208 yards. Bottlinger finished five-of-10 for 54 yards after coming into the game in the fourth quarter. Michael Zeman was his team's leading rusher with 51 yards on 14 carries. Karp was the top receiver with 83 yards on five catches.
Smalls once again eclipsed 100 passing yards and 100 rushing yards for the second-consecutive week. He completed 17 of his 33 throws for 201 yards and an interception, while leading the team with 112 yards and a touchdown on the ground on 14 carries. Spencer Long had 44 yards on four rushes. Wheeler completed both of his passes for 51 yards and a touchdown.
The Lion defense was the real star of the show, sacking Mines' quarterbacks 10 times during the game, and allowing just 86 rushing yards to a team that had been averaging more than 200 per game. The 10 sacks total by a single team ties the all-time record for an NCAA Division II Playoff game, and Elijah Earls' 3.5 sacks is 0.5 away from tying the individual playoff record.
The win improves A&M-Commerce to 10-2 on the season while the Orediggers fall to 12-1. The Lions now advance in the playoffs to face Minnesota State, which is coming off of a 35-7 win over Colorado State-Pueblo on Saturday.
The next playoff game will be at noon on Dec. 7 at Blakeslee Stadium in Mankato, Minnesota.