NORMAL, Ill. – Anthony Warrum's 62-yard punt return on the final play of the first half Saturday night broke open a close game as Illinois State kept the nation's top scoring offense under wraps as the Redbirds knocked off ACU, 31-17, at Hancock Stadium.
Illinois State led ACU 17-10 late in the half when the Wildcats couldn't run the clock out in the first half. Warrum, a true freshman from Fishers, Ind., fielded the ball in the middle of the field and returned it 62 yards to paydirt, crossing the goal line as the clock ran out on the first half, giving the Redbirds a 24-10 lead at the break.
"When you have a guy with good instincts, that kind of thing can happen," ACU head coach Ken Collums said. "We kicked it away from our coverage, and so that put us in scramble mode to try and get guys in position to cover the kick. That's a recipe for disaster and they made us pay for it.
"I don't know that there's ever any good time for that to happen, but that definitely wasn't a good time," he said. "I thought we responded well in the third quarter, but we just couldn't finish the job against a really good team."
Two Illinois State penalties and a Wildcat sack of Winkler forced the Redbirds to punt to ACU early in the second half. Although ACU couldn’t move the ball on its ensuing drive, it got it back at midfield with 6:41 left in the third quarter when safety Angel Lopez sacked Winkler again on fourth-and-2.
ACU then closed the gap to 24-17 when Hogg caught his second TD of the night, an 8-yarder from Baker with 3:26 left in the quarter. The eight-play, 50-yard drive was powered by Cantu-Harkless’ big 17-yard reception on first down that put the Wildcats in the ISU red zone.
Abilene Christian forced Illinois State to a three-and-out on the next possession, with the Redbirds pinning ACU on its 10-yard line with a punt. The Wildcats’ returned the favor when freshman Austin Kilcullen’s 64-yard punt, along with an ISU penalty, forced the Redbirds back to their own 9-yard line to begin the fourth quarter.
ACU's defense controlled the third quarter, limiting the Redbirds to just 20 yards of offense in the frame. But ISU reasserted itself to open the final quarter by marching 91 yards in 13 plays for a TD, capped by Keoshian’s 3-yard scoring run that took 6:53 off the clock and put the Redbirds further ahead, 31-17.
Stone returned the ensuing kickoff 41 yards to the ACU 44-yard line, but the Wildcats could not move into scoring position, turning the ball over on downs at the ISU 36-yard line with just under five minutes remaining. The Redbirds quieted ACU’s offense the rest of the way.
After leading the nation in points scored through three games (196) and ranking among the leaders in yards per game, ACU's offense wasn't consistent enough against the Redbirds. Playing in its first game against an NCAA Division I FCS opponent as an FCS independent, the Wildcats were limited to just 288 total yards (232 through the ground) and 17 points as they fell to 3-1 on the season and saw their six-game winning streak snapped.
Illinois State, meanwhile, won for the first time this season, improving to 1-2 on the year. ACU will be back in action next Saturday at 4 p.m. when it hosts former Lone Star Conference rival Tarleton State in a non-conference game at Toyota Stadium (former FC Dallas Stadium) in Frisco.
ACU started slow – 37 yards of total offense in the opening quarter – but gained confidence and momentum as the first half moved along, overcoming an early 10-0 deficit and a big difference in time of possession. ISU broke open the close game with two quick touchdowns to end the first half, including a punt-return score on the final play, but a renewed Wildcat defensive effort held the Redbirds off the scoreboard and to just 20 yards of offense in the third quarter.
Illinois State junior running back Collin Keoshian ran 10 yards for a touchdown on the game’s opening drive, which covered 56 yards in seven plays.
Senior runningback Darrell Cantu-Harkless ran back the ensuing kickoff 47 yards for the Wildcats, but ACU couldn’t take advantage of its good field position.
A 91-yard TD run by ISU sophomore running back Marshaun Copritch was nullified by a penalty on the Redbirds’ second possession, but ACU’s defense stiffened and forced ISU to punt.
The Wildcats answered with a drive to the ISU 8-yard line, but turned the ball over when wide receiver DeMarcus Thompson caught a short Baker pass and fumbled at the Redbirds’ 8-yard line.
Illinois State’s third drive stalled at the ACU, with the Redbirds settling for a 35-yard field goal by Nick Aussleker to up its lead to 10-0 with 14:01 left in the second quarter.
ACU wide receiver Taylor Gabriel’s end-around gained 25 yards to midfield to begin his team’s third drive. Runs by John David Baker, Charcandrick West and Cade Stone moved the Wildcats downfield, capped by Darian Hogg’s 23-yard touchdown pass from Baker with 10:38 remaining in the first half. The 75-yard drive took just eight plays and pulled ACU closer, 10-7.
The Wildcats made the score 10-10 with 3:52 left in the half when freshman Nik Grau kicked his third field goal of the season, a 27-yarder. ACU relied on its air attack on the eight-play, 68-yard drive, with the key play a 35-yard Baker-to-Taylor pass on second down.
The Redbirds moved quickly back into Wildcat territory, covering 65 yards in six plays, capped by Winkler’s 19-yard pass to Camero Meredith on third-and-8. The score at the 1:48 mark put ISU back on top of the scoreboard, 17-10.
That set up the game-changing punt return, which gave the Redbirds the cushion they needed to hold off the Wildcats.