LAS CRUCES, N.M. -- The Abilene Christian Wildcats needed a miracle to pull off a miracle. And unbelievably, they almost got it.
But instead of a miraculous win Saturday night, the Wildcats suffered a heartbreaking 34-29 loss to New Mexico State on a cool night at Aggie Memorial Stadium.
The win for NMSU is the program's first since Aug. 30, 2012, when the Aggies beat Sacramento State, 49-19, as the Aggies snapped an 18-game losing streak. The Aggies, who play at the NCAA Division I FBS level, haven't beaten an FBS opponent since a 48-45 win over Fresno State on Nov. 12, 2011.
ACU, which is in its first season as NCAA Division I FCS independent, was playing its first FBS opponent since a 1980 game against Hawaii. The Wildcats haven't beaten a team at college football's highest level since a 1959 win over Texas-El Paso.
New Mexico State appeared to have put the game away with 2:32 to play when Maxwell Johnson's 18-yard field goal gave the Aggies a 34-22 lead. The Wildcats, however, wouldn't die as they moved 73 yards on 15 plays to a 5-yard touchdown pass from John David Baker to Charcandrick West on fourth down that made it 34-29 with 19 seconds to play.
ACU then recovered the onside kick, but the ball was moved back to its own 31-yard line after a personal foul penalty on Lynn Grady. After a hold on first down, the ball was moved back to the 21-yard line with nine seconds left in the game.
On the game's final play, Baker rolled out to his right and heaved the ball as far as he could. Monte Green-Avery caught a tipped ball in traffic, spun around and was about to be dragged down around the 20-yard line when he flipped the ball to Taylor Gabriel, who had open field in front of him.
The senior from Mesquite -- who set the ACU single-game record with 15 catches for a career-high 188 yards -- sprinted down the sideline for what looked like it was going to be a game-winning touchdown that would rival "The Play" by Cal in its 1982 win over Stanford. But just as it appeared that Gabriel would score, he was knocked out of bounds by Trashaun Nixon at the 6-yard line, leaving the Wildcats just short of a finish that would go down as the greatest in program history.
The Wildcats led 22-21 at halftime and going to the fourth quarter, but will look back at several plays in the third quarter that might have cost them a victory. After the ACU defense forced a three-and-out to start the second half, the offense moved crisply to the NMSU 26-yard line, thanks in large part to a 45-yard run by West.
But two false start penalties on Will Latu and one on Jonathan Parker moved ACU from second-and-2 at the 27-yard line to third-and-13 at the 37. Baker threw incomplete on third down and then pooched a punt into the end zone to give NMSU the ball at the 20.
The teams exchanged punts three times before ACU took over at its own 23-yard line with 3:44 left in the quarter. On second-and-14 after a sack, Baker hit Gabriel over the middle for 19 yards and what would have been a first down. But Gabriel lost the ball and Anthony Edwards fell on it at the ACU 39 to give the Aggies some momentum.
They were able to move the ball down to the ACU 12-yard line before being pushed back by a holding call, and on the first play of the fourth quarter they took a 24-22 lead on Johnson's 32-yard field goal.
After ACU went three-and-out on its next possession, NMSU put together an impressive 12-play, 87-yard touchdown drive that was capped by Germi Morrison's 5-yard touchdown run to make it 31-22 with 7:41 to play.
The Wildcats went three-and-out again, and again the Aggies drove the field, going 45 yards on eight plays before being stopped at the 1-yard line. That set up Johnson's field goal with 2:32 to play to make it 34-22 and set off the game-ending fireworks.
NMSU scored first when Morrison capped a 13-play, 80-yard drive with an 8-yard touchdown run at the 8:02 mark of the first quarter. ACU responded with an 11-play, 80-yard drive that culminated in a Nik Grau 20-yard field goal to make it 7-3 with 3:41 to play in the quarter.
With 10:17 left in the first half, Andrew McDonald hit Adam Shapiro with a 6-yard scoring pass and the Aggies pushed their lead out to 14-3.Trailing by 11 points and facing third-and-7, Baker made one of his best plays of the night when he scrambled out of trouble and picked up 18 yards and a first down.
He hit Taylor for 14 yard son the next play and then Baker ran for eight, West for nine Baker for nine and West for the last 10 as ACU made it 14-9 with 6:04 left in the half. Grau's PAT was blocked and the Wildcats trailed by five points.
On NMSU's second play after the touchdown, Justin Stephens picked off a McDonald pass to set up the ACU offense at the NMSU 37-yard line. ACU was into the end zone and the lead just five plays later as Baker hit Cantu-Harkless from 20 yards out on third-and-9 to make it 15-14. Grau's PAT was tipped again and the Wildcats' lead was one point.
NMSU responded with a nine-play, 69-yard touchdown drive that was capped when Shapiro hit Perris Scoggins with a 6-yard touchdown pass on a wide receiver reverse pass. The PAT was good and the Aggies' lead was 21-15 with 52 seconds left in the first half.
But the Wildcats responded with a three-play, 65-yard drive that gave them the lead going to halftime. The kickoff by Brock Baca went out of bounds and on the first two plays, Baker completed passes of 14 yards and 43 yards to West to move the ball to the 8-yard line. Baker then hit Darian Hogg with a touchdown pass and Grau's kick was good to give ACU a 22-21 lead at halftime.