BY DANIEL STEENKAMER
HERO Sports Correspondent
In transferring to Abilene Christian from Iowa, Peyton Mansell brought the purple-clad Wildcats not named Northwestern some valuable Big Ten experience. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound quarterback had played and produced in signature Power 5 environments, ready to translate that to more regular playing time at ACU in an increasingly competitive and deep Southland Conference.
On Saturday, however, experience of a totally different variety served Mansell well in his team’s second game of its extraordinarily unique 2020 season, which is being played in the fall independent of the Southland’s announced spring plan. The patchwork schedule took Abilene all the way up to Army West Point for its first contest in the Northeast in a quarter-century. This lengthy trip was one into rather foreign territory for just about all but Mansell.
“I’ve been out here once before because my parents are both alumni; they both played sports here,” the Belton, Texas native said of West Point to HERO Sports. “The place is breathtaking on the way in. It’s just sight after sight. We got a lot of guys who have never been out of Texas, so it was just funny kinda hearing that from a bunch of guys.”
Mansell’s strong family ties to the military academy made his performance in this homecoming of sorts all the more special and meaningful. Despite enduring significant pressure from the stingy Army defense and taking his share of fierce hits, Mansell, in his second Wildcats start, completed 23-of-37 passes for 279 yards and three touchdowns.
“I was very proud of Peyton,” Abilene Christian head coach Adam Dorrel told HERO Sports postgame. “I know he wanted to come up here and play well. What I keep telling everybody is, ‘You gotta be patient with him.’ [The season opener at] UTEP was the first time he’d started a football game in three years since high school. What you hope is he’s going to get better each and every week.”
ACU was unabashedly aggressive in the early going against the Black Knights. With no hesitation, it kept its offense on the field in three first-quarter fourth-down situations, an approach Mansell appreciated and that netted a conversion at one point in Army territory. This move of the chains provided the Wildcat defense with a needed longer breather between appearances across from Army’s steady, fatigue-inducing triple-option attack.
Said Mansell, “It’s really reassuring when you have a coach like Coach Dorrel who’s like, ‘fourth-and-5, hey, we’re going for it,’ especially when we’re playing a team like Army where possessions are so limited.”
“When you’re the underdog on the road, I think you don’t have any choice, at least in my opinion, but to go out guns-ablazing,” Dorrel commented, explaining that the Wildcats sought to counter the anticipated heavy fourth-down aggression of Army with ample risk-taking of their own.
Despite the end result, a 55-23 defeat to fall to 0-2 after the opening FBS games, Dorrel came away encouraged by the fight shown by his squad in the West Point matchup’s late stages and by his offense’s signs of evolution under the direction of Mansell.
“I feel like we turned the corner today offensively,” Dorrel said. “I finally feel like I have a really good idea of who we are and what we are and what our identity is.”
Mansell offered similar sentiments.
“It was definitely not the outcome we wanted, but it was a fistfight and I don’t think anybody on our side flinched, so I’m really proud of all the guys,” the signal-caller affirmed.
The particular emotions of getting on the scoreboard in front of the exclusively Corps of Cadets crowd at the institution where it all started for his parents, he added, are challenging to describe.
“It’s tough to put it into words, especially that first touchdown [a 2-yard toss to Kobe Clark to cap a 9-play, 61-yard drive]. When it’s guys that you’ve gone through so much with now through COVID and through workouts, the amount of joy that it brings me and how much joy it brings them, it’s tough to quantify that.”