SAN ANTONIO – Following their embarrassing loss to Sam Houston State last weekend, the UIW Cardinals knew something needed to change and fast.
As they prepared for the weekend, the team held a players-only meeting on Thursday night. That meeting would be a wake-up call for the Cardinals, who earned a 31-24 victory over the Abilene Christian Wildcats (2-3, 1-2) at Benson Stadium on Saturday night.
The Cardinals struggled early on as quarterback Jon Copeland threw an interception on the first play of the game. Their second drive saw the team commit two holding penalties and Copeland get sacked for a seven-yard loss. Eventually, UIW got things together thanks to a motivated defense and a dominant ground game.
“At times, I’ve seen some selfish stuff throughout the season. We talked about that this week,” UIW Head Coach Eric Morris said. “We had a player-led meeting on Thursday night and I know they weren’t happy with how things were going so far with our attitudes.”
The Cardinals had their struggles through the air on offense, so they used their legs instead. UIW got on the scoreboard first when running back Keyondrick Philio got loose for a one-yard score to make it 7-0 late in the first quarter. Philio added a second touchdown on a fourth and goal play in the second quarter, putting UIW up 13-0.
UIW limited the Wildcats offensively until the final moments of the second quarter when ACU went down the field on a 54-yard drive and added a field goal.
In their first three games of the season, the UIW defense allowed 41.3 points per game but held the Wildcats to just 24 points on Saturday. The Cardinals had their best half defensively as well, limiting ACU to just three points in the opening half compared to the 69 total points they had given up in the first half in the first three games.
“Nothing goes out of that meeting, but the gist of it was just that we have to take control of our team, UIW senior defensive end Lukas Termin said. “Live in the moment. Attack all of these games. “Just telling the young guys to take advantage of every opportunity they get.”
Cardinals running back Ameer King got in on the scoring action early in the third quarter as he extended UIW’s lead to 20-3 with a 1-yard touchdown run. Then, ACU got rolling offensively as they scored 14 consecutive points. On the ensuing drive, Wildcats quarterback Luke Anthony threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Josh Fink, cutting UIW’s lead to 20-10.
Following a UIW fumble, Anthony found Justus Lee for a 14-yard score as ACU made it a 20-17 ballgame late in the third quarter. However, thanks to the Cardinals ground game, that was as far as the Wildcats got.
With ACU looking to tie or take the lead on the next drive, Cardinals freshmen Tre Richardson came up with a big interception and returned it 56 yards. That set up a UIW field goal and Philio’s third touchdown on the following drive, extending the Cardinals lead to 31-17.
The Wildcats added one more score as Tracy James converted from 1-yard out but the Cardinals intercepted a pass in the final moments to hang on.
UIW finished 7-for-18 on third downs on Saturday, their best mark of the young season. King led UIW on the ground with 17 carries for 61 yards. Defensively, the Cardinals had three interceptions, their most in a game for the season.
Morris called the win the most complete game he’s seen from this guys so far. However, if there is one thing he was not happy with, it was the play of his quarterback.
Copeland completed 18 of 35 passes for 170 yards and an interception. He did not have a touchdown in a game, the first time that has happened all season. While ACU pressured the quarterback, Morris was not going to allow that as an excuse.
“There’s probably five throws I can name right now where he wasn’t pressured,” Morris said. “He threw high. We had a perfect play in the red zone but he short-hopped it. When he’s out of the pocket, he’s making some bad decisions. He’s got to be more accurate, that’s what makes this offense go.”
The UIW Cardinals are now 2-2 (1-1, SLC) on the season and will return to the field next Saturday when they travel to face Houston Baptist (4-1, 1-0) at 6 p.m. Central Time.