Lions steal road win to start season

Lions kicker Kristov Martinez attempting a field goal against North Alabama. Photo Courtesy/

BJ Laudermilk, Sports Editor

In the heavily anticipated season-opening battle between top ten teams, the No. 5 A&M-Commerce Lions football team had to wait an extra day thanks to weather before picking up a dramatic, come-from-behind 8-7 victory at No. 6 North Alabama.

The score did not illustrate how dominant the defenses for both teams were, as the Lions were held without a touchdown for the first time since a 44-3 loss against Harding in the 2013 Live United Texarkana Bowl. A&M-Commerce gave up 300 yards of offense in their first road game of the season, but only allowed 116 total in the second half. North Alabama only had 58 rushing yards in the game and the Lions defense sacked North Alabama’s quarterback five times as well as breaking up seven passes.

“Defense was unbelievable, best performance they’ve had in our five years here, and just can’t say enough about each and every one of those guys that stepped up,” A&M-Commerce head football coach Colby Carthel said. “Everybody that took the field had a purpose.”

A&M-Commerce fell behind in the first quarter, as North Alabama found the end zone on a touchdown pass from 20 yards out. The Lions had seven drives in the first half, all of which ended in punts, but they kept North Alabama off the scoreboard as well, the hosts punting four times and missing three field goals.

The Lions started the second half by putting up their first points of the game, completing a 13 play, 75-yard drive with a 30-yard field goal from Kristov Martinez to cut the North Alabama lead to 7-3. The Lions looked to string momentum from the drive together to take the lead, but in each of the next three possessions, quarterback Luis Perez was intercepted, including one in the end zone. The defense kept them in the game, as North Alabama would be forced to punt after each of those takeaways.

With 4:24 remaining in the game, the Lions hope for a win looked bleak, as they prepared to punt the ball back to North Alabama. From the 43-yard line of Commerce, freshman punter Jake Viquez boomed a 55-yarder, rolling out of bounds at the North Alabama two-yard line. On the next play, Chris Smith got into the backfield and sacked the quarterback in the end zone, cutting two points off the Lions deficit at 7-5 with the safety.

The Lions got a great return on the free kick by Shawn Hooks, into North Alabama territory to the 36-yard line. A&M-Commerce then moved down the field, and with 1:12 to go, they took their first lead of the game on another 30-yard field goal from Martinez at 8-7. Martinez made field goal number 32 for his career, moving into third-place in school history.

The defense would allow North Alabama to move down the field on their final possession, but as they had all through the night, they came through to make the crucial stop at the right moment. With the hosts 18 yards away from the end zone, the defense forced an incomplete pass and a four-yard loss on a sack. North Alabama was still in range to make a game-winning field goal attempt, but on third-and-14, Trevon Blanchard forced a fumble, and the ball rolled almost 20 yards before the hosts recovered it. It would be a 55-yard field goal attempt for North Alabama to try to win, but the Lions blocked it at the line of scrimmage, stealing the huge road win.

Offensively, the Lions eight points were the lowest in a victory since a 6-3 win in 1995. A&M-Commerce totaled 272 yards in the game and 93 rushing yards from six different rushers. Perez, the Lone Star Conference Preseason Offensive Player of the Year, went 23-37 in the game for 179 yards and three interceptions, no touchdowns in a game for the first time in his Lions career, and the three interceptions more than he had in a game at any point last season, when he threw just five for the year.

The Lions start 1-0 for the fifth consecutive year, each year since Carthel took over. A&M-Commerce gets ready to host William Jewell (0-1) this Saturday in their home opener, as they celebrate “Communivercity Day” with the game scheduled for a 6 p.m. kickoff.