Justine Gaskamp, Sports Information Director
PHOENIX, Ariz. – In a game that certainly lived up to its hype, the Panhandle State football team took another fourth quarter victory this week in Saturday’s CSFL matchup against a nationally ranked Arizona Christian team.
Following last week’s last-minute victory over Wayland Baptist, the Aggies charged through another nail-biting performance to come out on top with a win 33-28 over the 16th top team in the country. Panhandle put points on the board in all four quarters, but shutout their opponents 12-0 in the final fifteen minutes of the game.
The Aggies took a sack for a loss on their opening drive and were unable to move the chains thereafter, forced to punt. The Firestorm took possession inside their own 30-yardline and went on to notch three consecutive first down passes to cross midfield and enter Aggie territory on the OPSU-37. Three short rushes and one 16-yard pass later, the Firestorm found themselves in the red zone with an opportunity to take an early lead. They did just that on the ensuing play as quarterback Ryan Esslinger placed a pass into the arms of Isaiah Huston for a touchdown.
Panhandle followed up with a 12-play series that took four-and-a-half minutes off the clock, but a fumble on a rush at the ACU-18 put the ball back into the home teams’ hands. Six plays later, the Firestorm found the end zone once again with five complete passes that brought them 81 yards downfield. Unaffected by the scoreboard, the Aggies, led by quarterback DJ Scott, added seven points of their own with great ground work by running back Preston Baker and four complete passes by Scott. Kicker Sterling Claphan booted in the point after and sent a 61-yard kickoff to the ACU-4. A 26-yard return gave Arizona Christian the ball on their own 30 with two seconds remaining in the first quarter. Esslinger completed a 20-yard pass to put the Firestorm at midfield to start the second quarter.
The Aggie defense did a great job putting pressure on the pass, as Esslinger went 2-of-5 on the next series and, on fourth down, defensive back Jordan Randolph came through with a big tackle for a loss of 20 yards on an ACU fake punt to turn the ball over on downs. Starting from the ACU-38, Panhandle pulled out the playbook and ran a fly sweep pass from Scott to receiver Miquel Hudson who completed a 38-yard pass to Kameron Taylor for an Aggie TD to tie the game. ACU was knocking on the door after just two plays on their next drive, completing consecutive passes for 25 and 52 yards each; the latter resulted in a turnover as Marcus McCants forced the fumble on Panhandle’s 13-yardline. Freshman Terrell Fallon recovered the ball at the OPSU-9 giving the Aggies possession with 12:57 left in the first half.
Arizona Christian held the Aggie offense to just two yards on the next series. A short punt gave the Firestorm good field position for the next drive, putting the ball inside Aggie Territory at the OPSU-30. Three complete passes from Esslinger led the Firestorm into the end zone for the third time of the day. The Aggies were stopped on a three-and-out effort by ACU’s defense, and then the Aggie D put the brakes on the Firestorm, allowing just two yards on their following possession. The score remained 21-14 as the first half came to a close, with the Aggies trailing.
Claphan kicked off to open the second half, and ACU’s Alan Freeman ran it back 25 yards to the ACU-33. A timely tackle by Jawan Purifoy and big pass breakup by McCants kept the Firestorm cool to start the third quarter. Panhandle took over on their own 26 and a seven-yard rush by Darrance James paired with a 12-yard reception from Scott to Orlando Haymon, moved the Aggies near midfield. A fumble on the third play of the series left the Aggies empty-handed as ACU recovered the ball on the OPSU-47. The Firestorm took advantage of the turnover and took five passes and two big running plays across the goal line for a fourth touchdown. Down 28-14 with ten minutes left in the third period, Panhandle State started looking for open targets downfield, but failed to find the yardage needed to sustain the drive. Scott suffered a sack on second-and-ten and was held to two-of-six on pass attempts; ACU’s defense did not allow the run either, allowing just two yards to Baker.
Solid tackling by the Aggie defense kept the Firestorm on a short leash for the next drive. A solo sack by Charles Stone on a third-and-seven play set ACU back five yards, forcing a punt. ACU’s defense answered in kind, offering a meager three yards to Scott and running back Cedric Agyeman on the next drive. Junior linebacker D’Darrin Primes put up a primetime performance on the following series, stopping Firestorm progress with an interception at the OPSU-30. The Aggies embraced the opportunity and, with QB Brandon Ramon now behind center, took nine plays to edge back to within seven points of their opponents. Ramon completed four-of-four pass attempts, including the nine-yard touchdown reception to tight end Brady Barrett. The ensuing kickoff by Claphan would be the final play of the third quarter, with the scoreboard showing a seven-point Firestorm advantage at 28-21.
Aggie fans were kept on the edge of their seats throughout the final fifteen minutes of the game. Esslinger opened with a 16-yard pass completion to bring the Firestorm to the OPSU-45. Defensive dominance by Purifoy, Primes and De’Adryelle Fites left the home team short bringing up a fourth-and-one situation. Junior DB Dante Shipman came up with a big pass breakup, giving the Aggies the ball back with plenty of time on the clock (13:36). Ramon picked up 40 yards on passes to Taylor, Haymon and Nick West. The running backs did the rest with Baker taking it in with a five-yard rush for a touchdown to narrow the distance to 28-27. Hungry for the win, the Aggies opted for a pass on the point after attempt, but the Firestorm saw it coming and held a one-point lead with 7:28 left to play.
The Darkside Defense came out with a stop on fourth down, giving the Aggies possession with just under five minutes on the clock. Ramon tucked a keeper for a nine-yard gain to start the series, but the Firestorm defense heated up and pushed the Aggies back for minus-two yards on the next three plays. Arizona Christian added up 18 yards on two rushes and were assisted with an additional 15 yards on a personal foul penalty on Panhandle; the Firestorm sat on the OPSU-14 at first-and-ten with 2:49 to tick away. Dominick Bell broke through with a sack on Esslinger for a loss of six yards to give the Aggies a little breathing room. A false start by ACU pushed them back another five yards and the Aggie defense stood strong for the remaining three plays including a pass attempt on 4th-and-22.
Starting on their own 26-yardline, Brandon Ramon and the Aggie offense chipped away at the open field one pass at a time. Three passes and one rush set the Aggies at first-and-ten on the ACU side of the field. Ramon connected on second down with a long ball sent to a steady and ready Brady Barrett. Barrett took the 43-yard reception straight into the Promised Land for, what would be the final touchdown of the day. To seal the deal, Dante Shipman dashed any hopes for the Firestorm as he came down with an ACU pass, intercepted in the OPSU end zone. The Aggies proved that they could live up to the hype and clinched their fourth win in the Central States Football League 33-28. The team now owns a 5-1 overall record and is undefeated in their conference along with Langston and their next opponent, Southwestern Assemblies of God.
Head Coach Russell Gaskamp gave an enthusiastic response on the team’s outstanding efforts, “I am extremely proud of our guys’ resiliency. ACU is a good football team, especially on offense, and they do not lose at home. It was a tough road trip, but I felt like our mental focus was great all weekend. We hung in together, while being down throughout the game, and scratched and clawed out a big win. It was a total team effort.” He added, “As for the way the game played out, everything really went the way I thought it would except for the two red zone turnovers in the first half. We knew that we had to control the clock and keep their high-powered offense off the field as much as possible. I was very proud of Coach Daniels and our defensive adjustments at halftime to hold them to seven points. It really was what won us the game. Brandon (Ramon) came in and provided a spark for us, and we did enough in the 4th quarter to get the job done.”
Panhandle State produced their highest offensive yardage of the season totaling 519 total yards; 314 passing and 205 rushing. The team tightened up with their fewest yards lost on penalties this season as well; the Aggies committed just six infractions in the game. Panhandle State was four-of-six on fourth down conversions and held their opponent to zero. Each team performed well inside the red zone with the Aggies succeeding on three-of-five opportunities; Arizona Christian was four-of-five inside the twenty.
Passing yardage was split between Ramon and Scott with Ramon completing 12 of 17 passes for 152 yards; Scott went 17-28 for 124 yards. The Aggie QBs suffered three sacks, but gave up zero interceptions in the game. ACU’s Esslinger had a big day totaling 411 yards on 34 completions. Preston Baker led the game in rushing with 110 yards on 19 carries. Agyeman averged 5.1 yards per carry and totaled 46 yards on nine attempts. Leading the Aggie receiving core were Kameron Taylor with 99 yards and one touchdown on nine receptions, Nick West with four catches for 60 yards and Brady Barrett with 52 yards on two passes for two TDs.
Defensively, the wealth of tackles were shared among many. Fites, Purifoy and Primes each finished seven tackles; Bell and Nathan Leithead had six tackles apiece; and Shipman and Fallon each had five. Bell and Leithead had one sack apiece along with Charles Stone. McCants came up big with four tackles, one forced fumble and one pass breakup in the game. Primes and Shipman came away with two picks and Bell, Leithead, Randolph, Stone, Zack Clack, Kameron Lyons and Jeffon Evans collected 42 combined yards on tackles for loss.
Happy with the win, Gaskamp now looks ahead stating, “We are ecstatic to get a road win versus a ranked team; it gives us a chance to keep pace in the league race. We have huge home games against the two best teams in the league that we have to refocus for now when we get back.”
Panhandle State Football returns to their home field after a two-week road stint to face another top-ranked CSFL team. Southwestern Assemblies of God is ranked No. 22 in the NAIA polls (as of Sunday, Oct. 15) and sits in a three-way tie for first in the CSFL with Langston and Panhandle State. The Aggies are set to host SAGU this Saturday, Oct. 21 at No Man’s Land Stadium for a 2 p.m. kickoff. The Little Aggies Cheer Camp will take place prior to the game from 9 a.m.-Noon in the Noble Activity Center; information is available online at opsuaggies.com for those still wishing to register for the camp. Seaboard Foods is this week’s official game sponsor, and all children under the age of 17 will receive free entry into the game. Tailgating begins at 11 a.m. and the Little Aggies Cheerleaders will perform at halftime. Fans unable to attend in person can follow along with live stats and streaming video links available on the Football Schedule page of the athletics website.