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Redhawks blow lead, finish 4-7
For most of Saturday's season finale, it looked like Southeast Missouri State's 25 seniors would be able to end their college careers with a win.
But that was before Tennessee Tech staged a furious comeback to stun the Redhawks and 3,422 fans at Houck Stadium.
Trailing 29-6 late in the third quarter Saturday afternoon, the Eagles scored the game's final 26 points -- capped by a short field goal with 6.4 seconds remaining -- to pull out a 32-29 victory.
So the Redhawks finish coach Tony Samuel's first season with a 4-7 overall record and a 2-6 Ohio Valley Conference mark, which places them seventh in the nine-team league after being picked last in the preseason poll.
Tech winds up 4-7 overall and a sixth-place 4-4 in the OVC.
"We thought we had the game under control," said Southeast senior quarterback Kevin Ballatore, who threw two touchdown passes. "Give them credit for coming back like they did."
When senior Antonio Scaife -- normally a wide receiver but used as a running quarterback for the second straight week -- scored on a 3-yard run with 6 minutes, 19 seconds left in the third quarter, and Ballatore passed to senior tight end Matt Boyack for a two-point conversion, Southeast led 29-6.
"We were looking pretty good at that point," said Scaife, who split time with Ballatore, as sophomore backup quarterback Markus Mosley missed the game with a knee injury. "But I guess they wanted it more. It's a tough loss."
Tech rallied behind the right arm of redshirt freshman quarterback Lee Sweeney and a defense that allowed the Redhawks just one first down after their final touchdown.
Sweeney, a transfer from Louisville -- he redshirted with the Cardinals last year -- completed 22 of 36 second-half passes for 335 yards and two touchdowns.
Sweeney finished 32 of 57 for 437 yards as Southeast's defense allowed a season-high 562 total yards, with 360 coming in the second half.
Not even Arkansas gained more yards against the Redhawks.
"The biggest thing, I thought, their pass offense got going," Samuel said. "He threw some good balls."
Tech scored on its final five offensive possessions, starting with Sweeney's 18-yard pass to Larry Shipp with 2:46 remaining in the third quarter that made it 29-13.
Sweeney threw a 49-yard touchdown pass to Shipp just 21 seconds into the final period, but Southeast's second block of an Eagles' PAT kept the Redhawks ahead 29-19.
Anthony Ash's 1-yard run with 7:14 left capped Tech's third straight TD drive of 70 or more yards and pulled the Eagles within 29-26.
Tech freshman Nate Johnson kicked a 31-yard field goal with 1:51 to play for a 29-29 tie.
Southeast continued to struggle offensively with a three-and-out series, but senior David Simonhoff's 58-yard punt backed Tech up at its 31-yard line with just 1:08 remaining.
The Eagles' offense marched quickly to Southeast's 9-yard line in less than a minute.
Johnson's 26-yard field goal with 6.4 seconds left was the game-winner, and Ballatore's desperation pass on the final play was intercepted near the goal line.
"They're a good team and if you give them too much they're going to take it," Southeast senior linebacker Seth Harrell said. "We basically fell apart. Our offense gave us the lead and we couldn't keep it.
"It's disappointing. We wanted to win this last game. We did all we could to win it. But you hear it all the time that you have to play 60 minutes."
Southeast's offense never really got going all day -- finishing with just 277 total yards -- but took advantage of two early Tech miscues to build a commanding lead.
Midway through the first quarter, Southeast true freshman cornerback Eddie Calvin recovered a muffed punt at the Eagles' 19-yard line.
Sophomore tailback Tim Holloman, taking a direct snap from center, scored on an 8-yard run for a 7-0 lead.
Tech fumbled on its next possession, which led to a 22-yard Southeast touchdown drive late in the opening period.
Ballatore, who missed last week's loss at Tennessee State with a back injury, hit senior wide receiver Brandon Simpson with a 12-yard touchdown pass and a 14-0 advantage.
Just 18 seconds into the second quarter, Ballatore and senior wide out Samora Goodson hooked up on a 47-yard TD completion for a 21-0 lead.
It was 21-6 at halftime, and when Southeast's second TD drive of at least 70 yards was capped by Scaife's 3-yard run with 6:19 left in the third quarter, the Redhawks appeared to be rolling at 29-6.
But Sweeney and the Eagles had other ideas.
"You have to give them credit," said Harrell, a Jackson High School product.
Ballatore completed 10 of 21 passes for 149 yards, with two interceptions; Scaife was Southeast's leading rusher with 65 yards on 15 carries; and senior tight end Seth McDowell from Jackson caught two passes for 51 yards.
Southeast's defense, playing without national sack leader Edgar Jones -- the senior end dressed out but could not go after testing his sprained ankle in warmups -- was led by junior linebacker Adam Casper with 14 tackles.
Harrell had eight tackles and an interception, senior end Kyle Hunt had 1.5 sacks and Calvin made his first collegiate interception to go along with a recovery of the muffed punt.
Despite ending their careers with three straight losses -- Southeast dropped six of its final seven games after a 3-1 start -- several of the seniors believe Samuel has the program headed in the right direction.
"I'm proud to have played with all these guys, and I have no doubt they'll win championships in the future," Ballatore said.
Said Harrell: "It's a great coaching staff and I know this program has a great future ahead of it. I'm going to be back here supporting them."
Added Samuel: "I promised them in the locker room after the game, the seniors, your effort will not go unnoticed. We'll win championships for them."