Younger players give reason for optimism

Sunday, November 18, 2007
Southeast Missouri State linebacker Nick Stauffer, bottom, sacked Jacksonville State senior quarterback Matt Hardin Saturday afternoon, November 18, 2007, at Houck Stadium during the season finale. (Kit Doyle ~ kdoyle@semissourian.com)

Happy, smiling faces filled Houck Stadium as Saturday afternoon turned to evening.

For the first time in more than two months, Southeast Missouri State won a game.

And if you are going to be limited to winning just one Ohio Valley Conference game -- which the Redhawks were this fall -- this was a pretty good one to win.

Southeast, which scored no more than 21 points in regulation against a Division I opponent this season, scored 29 second-half points for a come-from-behind 32-25 victory against Jacksonville State, the third-best team in the OVC coming in to the game.

If there were enough people in Houck Stadium to tear down a goal post, perhaps it would have happened.

Southeast freshman Miles Edwards hauled in a touchdown pass during Saturday's game. (MIKE WILLIAMSON ~ Special to the Southeast Missourian)

The Redhawks completed a 3-8 second season under coach Tony Samuel and avoided making their first winless trek through the league since joining the I-AA ranks in 1991.

"It is a good momentum builder for us," Samuel said.

His team played a flawless second half with 246 yards total to go along with a blocked punt for a touchdown and an interception.

That was enough to overcome one of the ugliest first quarters of football one could imagine.

Southeast put itself in a 15-0 hole less than 9 minutes into the game with a fumble that led to a field goal, a fumble that was knocked through the back of the end zone for a safety, a field goal on Jacksonville State's ensuing possession, and a blocked punt for a JSU touchdown.

Southeast Missouri State receiver Walter Peoples, right, tried to make a catch against the defense of Jacksonville State defensive back T.J. Heath during Saturday's game at Houck Stadium. (MIKE WILLIAMSON ~ Special to the Southeast Missourian)

If there is a low point in this rebuilding process, the Redhawks seemed to be well on their way to finding it.

They went to the half trailing 15-3.

"Coach didn't have to say too much," freshman receiver Miles Edwards said. "The seniors said it all."

Said Samuel: "I just felt like this team faced adversity all year, and this time we could see it didn't faze them. They knew they could play with this team."

They did more than that. After falling behind 18-3, the Redhawks scored with Houston Lillard passing 21 yards to Edwards. The Gamecocks restored their 15-point lead, then the Redhawks scored again, and again, and again. And that's not a typo. Twenty-two unanswered points.

"We came back from being hit in the face, and we hit them back," Edwards said. "We showed we were ready to win."

A potentially meaningless game suddenly carried a lot of weight.

"This is huge," Lillard said. "We've got a lot of young dudes, and we beat one of the top teams in the league. We gained confidence even though we didn't play a four-quarter game."

"A win," added junior offensive guard Matt James, "sends us into the offseason with more motivation to keep working."

Lillard should be back next year along with Edwards, James, five other offensive starters, eight defensive starters and punter/kicker Doug Spada.

Those are some reasons for optimism.

And the Redhawks may get a second-half boost if leading rusher Tim Holloman returns for the last part of his senior season after a period of NCAA ineligibility that seems to be of the 365-day variety.

"I don't know what the whole story is, but we're counting on it," Samuel said.

"Hopefully, he'll be back," offensive coordinator Vincent White said. "And it will be nice to have him back."

During its struggles this season, Southeast's offense never found its balance, either having a running game without a passing attack, or a passing attack without a go-to running back.

If you believe, as Lillard does, that his injury and Holloman's ineligibility slowed the progress of the Redhawks, you can believe that next year will be better.

"Everything feels like it happened for a reason," he said, adding that he expects this season's adversity to help the team move from the bottom toward the top part of the standings in 2008.

"We're making progress," Samuel said, "but we've got a long way to go and a lot of work to do. We need to have a great offseason."

At least on this, the first day of the offseason, the sun will shine a little brighter for the Redhawks than it has in two months.

Toby Carrig is editor of the Web site semoball.com

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