Redhawks rally from 15 down to beat Gamecocks
Sunday, November 18, 2007
Southeast beat Jacksonville State for the first time since the Gamecocks joined the OVC in 2003.
Based on the way the players celebrated and the emotion they displayed, you'd have thought Southeast Missouri State had just won the Ohio Valley Conference title.
When a football team carries a seven-game losing streak into its season finale, posting a victory is precious regardless of its significance.
So the Redhawks -- and especially their nine seniors -- made no apologies following Saturday's improbable 32-25 comeback win over visiting Jacksonville State.
"It was awesome," said senior linebacker Adam Casper, the OVC's leading tackler who paced Southeast with 12 stops Saturday. "Everybody put their hearts out there. Nobody gave up when we got down 15-0."
The Redhawks actually trailed by 15 points on three separate occasions against the perennial OVC power Gamecocks, including 25-10 late in the third quarter.
But they scored the game's final 22 points to post their first win against JSU since the Gamecocks joined the OVC in 2003.
Southeast (3-8, 1-6) also avoided finishing last in the 10-team OVC as the Redhawks ended up in ninth place, just ahead of Murray State.
"I'm just proud of the team," senior cornerback Romae Rucker said. "We just fought hard and played with our hearts."
An announced crowd of 2,325 at Houck Stadium -- although there didn't appear to be more than 1,000 fans in the stands -- had little to cheer about in the first half.
The Gamecocks (6-5, 5-3) capitalized on three early Southeast miscues to build a 15-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
Junior quarterback Houston Lillard lost two fumbles while being sacked, one leading to a short field goal and the other resulting in a safety.
Throw in a blocked punt that JSU returned for a touchdown -- along with a field goal after the free kick following the safety -- and things looked bleak for the Redhawks.
But they refused to buckle.
"We stayed positive the whole time," said senior tailback Elton Peterson, who had the first 100-yard rushing game of his college career, finishing with 120 yards on 33 carries.
Southeast still trailed 15-3 at halftime and 25-10 in the closing moments of the third quarter.
The rest of the contest, however, belonged to the Redhawks.
Lillard shook off a tough start -- in addition to the two lost fumbles, he completed just 3-of-13 passes in the first half -- to lead the comeback. He threw three touchdown passes -- two to freshman wide receiver Miles Edwards -- and completed 11-of-12 second-half passes for 181 yards.
"We wanted to give the seniors a positive way out," said Lillard, who finished 14-of-25 for 224 yards without an interception.
Lillard's first TD pass, a 21-yarder to Edwards early in the third quarter, pulled Southeast to within 18-10, but JSU answered with its only real drive against a Southeast defense that had its best performance of the season.
Lillard hit senior tight end Joseph Tuineau with a 12-yard TD pass in the final minute of the third period to make it 25-17.
Then came the play that really shifted the momentum toward Southeast.
Early in the final period, true freshman Bryan Blanfort blocked a JSU punt. Mukai Matsiga, another true freshman, scooped up the ball and raced 13 yards to the end zone, making it 25-23.
Lillard hit Tuineau for the 2-point conversion and a 25-25 tie with 13 minutes, 28 seconds still remaining in the contest.
Southeast kept on coming, with the defense setting up the go-ahead score as junior safety Vincent Anderson intercepted JSU quarterback Matt Hardin and returned it 26 yards to the Gamecocks' 36.
Seven plays later, Lillard hit Edwards from 6 yards out for a 32-25 lead with 8:19 left.
Southeast's defense forced a three-and-out, giving the ball back to the offense at its 11-yard line with 6:16 left.
JSU never saw the ball again as the Redhawks ran out the clock, going 66 yards in 14 plays and picking up four first downs.
"The whole team just came together today," Tuineau said. "It was a great feeling."
Southeast's defense allowed a season-low 254 yards, while the Redhawks' offense piled up 384 yards against the OVC's top-ranked defense.
"We played physical. That was our purpose," defensive coordinator Tim McGuire said.
While head coach Tony Samuel knows Saturday's performance does not make up for the Redhawks' struggles this year, he was still elated to end his second season at Southeast with a resounding victory.
"They refused to back down. They kept playing. It would have been easy to say, 'Here we go,'" said Samuel, whose squad reached its highest point total of the season against a Division I opponent. "It's great for the seniors to go out this way."
Added Samuel, already looking ahead to next year: "This was a big, big momentum jump for us. It really does help."