KINGSVILLE, Texas — North Alabama’s lead was wilting away in the south Texas heat Saturday night as Texas A&M-Kingsville was just seven yards away from a go-ahead touchdown late in the third quarter.
But a defense that has come up big in recent weeks did it one more time.
Timing the play perfectly, safety Caleb Massey stepped in front of a Nate Poppell pass and had nothing but green turf in front of him, returning the interception 93 yards for a touchdown, and UNA held on for a 21-16 victory over the Javelinas.
It was the fourth consecutive win for the Lions (5-1).
Massey’s interception was his fourth of the season and the return was the longest in UNA history.
“The coaches kept telling me not to get beat inside, so I made sure I stayed inside the receiver,” Massey said. “I saw the ball coming and just broke on it. Once I caught it I got great blocking and saw nothing but green grass.”
Massey’s play didn’t seal the win, though. TAMUK (2-4) drove deep into UNA territory on its next possession, but the defense came through again to hold the Javelinas to a field goal, preserving the 21-16 with 4:14 to play.
UNA’s offense, which struggled in the second half, then made two first downs to run the clock down under a minute. Michael Schuster missed a 39-yard field goal with 32 seconds left, but the Javelinas were out of timeouts and failed to get past midfield before time ran out.
“We faced some adversity tonight and were able to hold on and find a way to win,” coach Bobby Wallace said. “I’m proud of our defense for allowing only one touchdown and then getting the big play by Caleb. It’s huge for this team to get to 5-1.”
UNA led 14-6 at halftime, but the Javelinas quickly took the momentum in the second half. TAMUK took the second-half kickoff and drove 69 yards with Anthony Johnson scoring on a 17-yard run to cut the UNA lead to 14-13.
The Javelinas had two chances to take the lead in the second half but missed a 34-yard field goal and had a touchdown called back due to a holding penalty.
TAMUK threatened a third time when Massey made the interception and touchdown return.
The Javelinas again drove deep into UNA territory, but again had to settle for a field goal that trimmed UNA’s lead to 21-16 with 4:14 remaining.
“When our backs are against the wall we always seem to come up with a way to hold them,” defensive end Richie Mata’afa said. “Massey made the big play tonight and that’s what this defense does — we always make a play when we have to have one.”
UNA won despite finishing with just 244 yards to 393 for the Javelinas.
“Our offense struggled in the second half,” Wallace said. “We had some problems with our snaps and just couldn’t get anything going. But at the end when we needed them to make some first downs they were able to get the job done.”
The offense came out playing at a fast tempo on the game’s opening drive and moved 82 yards in 14 plays to take a 7-0 lead when Chris Alexander scored on a 2-yard keeper.
Leading 7-3, UNA drove 87 yards with freshman Luke Wingo at quarterback. Wingo kept the drive alive with a 32-yard run on a fourth-and-1 play. Two plays later, Lamonte Thompson ran through a hole on the left side for a 4-yard touchdown that pushed the lead to 14-3 with 11:29 left in the second quarter.
UNA stopped one drive with an interception by Floyd Jones and held the Javelinas to a 25-yard field goal on another to take a 14-6 lead into halftime.
“This is a huge win for us, but we’re still not where we want to be,” Massey said. “We just have to keep taking it one step at a time, but it feels good to be 5-1 right now.”
Jeff McIntyre can be reached at 256-740-5737 or jeff.mcintyre@TimesDaily.com.