ARLINGTON, Texas – Down 24-6 at halftime, the fourth-ranked West Texas A&M football team roared back outscoring No. 18 Chadron State 28-7 in the final two quarters for a thrilling 34-31 victory in the first game of the Lone Star Football Festival at AT&T Stadium.
“This goes back to the character of the team and the culture that has been built here,” interim head coach Mike Nesbitt said. “Things just didn’t go good for us early. These guys have been here a long time as seniors and the transfers we have gotten have come in here and have bought in and that really helped us in the third and fourth quarters. Our guys decided in the second half to push back and try and win it and they did a great job.”
The Buffs (2-0) scored the final 18 points of the game in the fourth quarter to mount the thrilling comeback as senior kicker Sergio Castillo, Jr., kicked his career-high fourth field goal of the game with 49 seconds left to break a 31-31 tie.
Following the field goal, Buff “D” came up with the third interception of the game as junior defensive back Torian Oakley picked off Eagle quarterback Jonn McLain to seal the win with nine seconds left.
WT pulled even with a great 19-yard pass from senior quarterback Dustin Vaughan to senior running back Aaron Harris and a two-point conversion for a 31-31 lead with 6:36 remaining. Vaughn connected with senior wide receiver Jace Jackson for the tie game.
On the ensuing Chadron State (1-1) possession, senior linebacker Taylor McCuller came up with one of the biggest plays of the game and of his career as he intercepted McLain on a 4th-and-4 at the WT 34 setting up the winning field goal.
McCuller had a game-high 17 tackles with 10 solo stops. It was his first career interception.
“We just settled down as we had been in this situation before and our senior leaders kept everyone together and not to panic, “McCuller said. “I felt like in the second half they had some doubt and were thinking about last year’s game and we took advantage of that.”
Harris scored from three yards out early in the fourth quarter as special teams came up big for the Buffs in the second half. Junior returner Jeremy Watson had a 50-yard punt return to the Chadron State five setting up the score from Harris from three yards out for a 31-23 deficit.
Coming out of halftime, the special teams set the Buffs up in great position as senior returner Nathan Slaughter returned the kickoff 69 yards to the Chadron 17 and on the first play from scrimmage, Harris scampered in for a 24-13 score.
The momentum looked to be leaning towards the Buffs in a largely partisan WT announced crowd of 3,093. The Buffs forced the Eagles to punt on their opening possession of the half and mounted a 10 play, 69-yard drive, but settled for a field goal for a 24-26 score.
Chadron State roared right back on the ground as Michael Madkins got loose for a 52-yard touchdown swelling the lead to 31-16.
The Eagles opened the game with a 77-yard run by Glen Clinton for a 7-0 lead on the first play from scrimmage. WT then fumbled the lateral pass on its first possession as Dillon Breinig returned the miscue to the seven. McLain hooked up with Nathan Ross for a 14-0 lead just 1:11 into the game.
A long 17 play, 82-yard drive consuming 5:57 on the clock made the score 21-0 in favor of the Eagles in midway through the first quarter.
In a game that was a tale of two halves, the Buffs had eight first downs and 168 total yards in the first half, to 16 first downs and 275 total yards for Chadron State. The second half was much different as the Buffs finished with 23 first downs and 462 total yards and Chadron State had nine first downs the rest of the way and 464 total yards.
Vaughan threw another clean game as he was 29 of 41 for 353 yards and one touchdown, while Harris was the key offensively as he had his first 100-yard game on the ground in a Buffalo uniform on 17 carries for 103 yards and two scores. He also had four catches for 21 yards and a score. Senior receiver Torrence Allen and Jackson made huge catches all game – eight of them each as Allen had 124 yards and Jackson had 87 yards.
It was the four field goals and great kick and punt returns by the Buffs which really helped.
Chadron State (1-1) was led by Clinton who had 143 yards and a score on 24 carries, but he was held to just nine carries and 16 yards in the second half. Madkins had seven carries for 89 yards. McLain was 28 of 40 with one touchdown and three picks in the game. Defensively, Lance Haller led the way with 15 tackles and nine solo stops.
The Buffs return home to open conference play next Saturday for their home-opener against Texas A&M-Commerce at 6 p.m. at Kimbrough Memorial Stadium.