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Racers halt Redhawks, skid
Houston Lillard did his best to shake off injured ribs and jump-start a Southeast Missouri State offense that continues to struggle scoring points.
But by the time Lillard got the Redhawks moving, their defense had already started to spring numerous leaks.
Those second-half defensive deficiencies, coupled with numerous failed offensive opportunities in the first half, led to a sour homecoming game for the Redhawks.
And the result was Murray State being able to celebrate the end of an 18-game Ohio Valley Conference losing streak on Southeast's own field.
The Racers broke open a 0-0 halftime stalemate by scoring on five of their first six second-half possessions as they posted a 31-17 victory Saturday at Houck Stadium.
Murray State (2-5, 1-3) claimed its first OVC win since 2004, while Southeast (2-5, 0-4) suffered its fourth straight loss and fell into sole possession of last place in the 10-team conference.
"This is a tough loss," Southeast coach Tony Samuel said.
Lillard, a junior who has shown to be Southeast's only consistent passing threat this year, suffered cracked ribs early during the Sept. 22 OVC opener at Samford, which began the Redhawks' four-game losing skid.
Lillard, who had ranked among the OVC completion-percentage leaders at 68.8 -- albeit in limited attempts -- missed the past two games.
Although Lillard returned to practice for the first time Tuesday, he said he didn't plan on playing Saturday, based on conversations with Southeast coaches.
"I practiced Tuesday, then they said I wouldn't play, so I didn't really practice the rest of the week," Lillard said. "This morning they told me to be ready, but quite honestly I didn't plan on playing."
With Southeast trailing 17-7 early in the fourth quarter, after junior starter Victor Anderson had gone most of the way and redshirt freshman Steve Callanan played two series, Lillard finally got the call.
Lillard proceeded to complete his first three passes on a 54-yard drive that led to a field goal that made it 17-10, and he later led a short 40-yard touchdown drive that cut the Racers' lead to 24-17 with just over nine minutes remaining.
But the Racers answered with a touchdown, and Lillard had a pass intercepted deep in Racers' territory with a little less than six minutes left that basically ended Southeast's hopes.
Still, it was an impressive showing for Lillard, after he had not seen the field in about a month.
Lillard completed 8-of-13 passes for 139 yards, after Anderson and Callanan had combined to complete 9-of-19 for 78 yards through three quarters.
"We run a different brand of offense [with Lillard in the game]," Southeast coach Tony Samuel said. "He can loosen up the defenses a little bit more. He does have a good arm.
"He did a good job. I think by next week he should be close to 100 percent."
Lillard said he was glad to be back on the field, and added about his injured ribs: "I couldn't really feel it. My adrenaline was going so good. I'll probably feel it tomorrow."
Murray State torched Southeast's defense in the second half to the tune of 343 yards, after the Racers were limited to 72 yards in a scoreless first half.
The Redhawks failed to take advantage of great field position and numerous opportunities in the first half.
"We probably should have come away with at least 14 points [in the first half]," said Samuel, whose squad had 188 first-half yards and possessed the ball for more than 19 of the 30 minutes.
The Racers turned the tables in the second half, putting together one impressive drive after another, led by redshirt freshman quarterback Jeff Ehrhardt (two TD passes, one TD run) and sophomore tailback Charlie Jordan (157 yards, one TD).
"They made some adjustments, and we just didn't make as many plays as we did in the first half," Southeast junior safety Kendall Magana said.
It didn't help the Redhawks that senior linebacker Adam Casper, the OVC's leading tackler, left with a knee injury late in the third quarter (he did not return), although by that time the Racers had already taken control with their offense.
"Any time you lose your defensive leader, it's never a good thing," Magana said. "But they [Murray State] played a great game. I have to give them credit."
Southeast ended with a season-high 409 yards of offense (it was averaging an OVC-worst 310 yards), and the Redhawks' 217 passing yards more than doubled their season average (90.5 yards entering the contest).
But the Redhawks' OVC-worst scoring offense (18 points per game) failed to take advantage of a Murray State defense that had been allowing an OVC-worst 40.7 points per game.
"We were poised to win," Magana said. "It's a tough loss."
Southeast returns to OVC action Saturday when it visits Tennesee-Martin for a noon contest.