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Redhawks deny season-opening upset in OT
Southeast Missouri State got its act together just in time to avert what would have been an embarrassing way to start the season.
The Redhawks scored the game's final 23 points Thursday and led only once all night -- in overtime.
That formula allowed the Redhawks to squeeze out a 35-28 victory over Division II Southwest Baptist.
A little more than 5,000 fans at Houck Stadium watched the Bearcats -- 0-11 last year, when they were outscored 494-240 -- control the contest most of the way.
But the Redhawks' rally from a 28-12 deficit with under 11 minutes left in regulation made sure they would be able to exit the field with nothing but smiles.
"We didn't want to do it this way," senior wide receiver Mike Williamson said. "It was scary, but we're 1-0. That's what you want, a 'W.'"
Junior Doug Spada's 47-yard field goal with 1 minute, 41 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter pulled Southeast into a 28-28 tie.
Senior quarterback Houston Lillard then hit junior wide receiver Miles Edwards with a 23-yard touchdown pass on the second play of overtime to give Southeast its first lead at 35-28.
The Bearcats had a chance to force a second overtime as they took over at Southeast's 25-yard line.
On fourth-and-7 from the 22, SBU sophomore quarterback Steven Gachette was sacked by Southeast senior defensive end Ben Gugler to end the contest.
"It's definitely a relief," said Gugler, who had both of Southeast's sacks in the game. "We pulled out the win. It feels good."
But it was SBU -- which also gave Southeast a battle last year before the Redhawks pulled away late for a 38-17 win -- that felt good most of the way.
Southeast took the opening kickoff and drove impressively before losing a fumble inside the SBU 10-yard line.
The Bearcats pretty much had their way until the fourth quarter. An 88-yard touchdown drive immediately after Southeast's fumble made it 7-0.
SBU, led by the accurate and mobile Gachette, led 14-3 at halftime and opened up a 28-12 advantage late in the third quarter.
Gachette, operating SBU's wide-open, no-huddle attack, passed for 298 yards while rushing for 58 yards. The Bearcats piled up a whopping 541 yards.
"He was a good quarterback," Southeast junior cornerback Eddie Calvin said. "We [the defense] weren't playing like ourselves."
Said Gugler: "He [Gachette] was an excellent player. We just didn't stop them for a while."
As impressive as Gachette was, the Redhawks were able to intercept him four times, including one by senior cornerback Kendall Magana with under 30 seconds left in regulation to thwart a last-ditch SBU effort to regain the lead.
Calvin picked off Gachette three times, all in the first half.
The second of Calvin's career-high picks came shortly after the Bearcats had recovered a Southeast fumble at the Redhawks' 14-yard line. SBU already led 14-3.
"Eddie had a great first half," Southeast coach Tony Samuel said. "He saved us."
When SBU finished off a 93-yard drive to go ahead 28-12 with just over three minutes remaining in the third quarter, things looked bleak for Southeast.
"We just knew we had to keep our heads up," Calvin said.
Although the Bearcats continued to move the ball, Southeast's defense was able to keep them off the scoreboard the rest of the way. And the Redhawks' offense finally got going.
Southeast gave the home fans something to cheer about for the first time in a while when Lillard hit Williamson on a 14-yard touchdown pass with 10:43 left in the fourth quarter, cutting SBU's lead to 28-18.
SBU put together an impressive drive that resulted in a missed 33-yard field-goal attempt.
On the next play, Lillard and Edwards -- who had career highs with 10 catches for 204 yards -- hooked up for an 80-yard touchdown, making it 28-25 with 5:52 remaining in regulation.
"We needed that one," Edwards said.
The Bearcats again were driving in an attempt to put the game away when Southeast recovered a fumble at its 34-yard line with 4:27 remaining.
True freshman linebacker Philip Klaproth from Poplar Bluff, Mo., was credited with forcing the fumble, while senior linebacker Nick Stauffer fell on it.
Southeast marched the other way before stalling at the SBU 30.
Spada, who earlier had made a field goal from 33 yards while missing from 35 and 34 yards, drilled a 47-yarder to tie things with 1:41 remaining.
"The reason I had confidence was because my teammates picked me up, they kept cheering me up," Spada said. "It felt great when I hit it."
It also felt great for the Redhawks when they prevailed in overtime.
"The bottom line is we won," said Lillard, who threw for a career-high 387 yards of Southeast's 451 yards total, with 201 yards coming in the fourth quarter and overtime. "We stayed focused and everybody kept their heads up."
Added Magana: "I give them [SBU] credit. They played their hearts out. I told them that after the game."
But like most of the Redhawks, Magana figures all that mattered was that Southeast survived.
"Coach Samuel said it best," Magana said. "A lot of teams would have buckled. We didn't."