Progress? Redhawks shaky in start of Samuel's pivotal season

Friday, August 29, 2008

Progress as promised?

Not yet. Not Thursday night.

Southeast Missouri State's football team opened the season against the Division II Southwest Baptist program that it had to rally against last year for a 21-point win. The same Southwest Baptist that went on to lose all 11 games it played last season.

If the Redhawks were going to use this game to send a message that Tony Samuel's third season is going to be the breakthrough campaign, some signals were crossed for most of the night.

This almost became the signal to start writing the classified ad, "Help wanted."

The Bearcats marched on Southeast for 541 yards of total offense. They sacked Southeast quarterback Houston Lillard seven times.

They did everything but win. Three interceptions early, then a missed field goal, a fumble and an interception in the final quarter kept SBU's spread offense from scoring more points.

Southeast successfully rallied from a 16-point deficit in the final period and posted the 35-28 victory in overtime.

What a tuneup for nationally ranked Division I team Missouri.

Samuel himself said the Tigers would be "laughing and giggling" when they watched the game film to prepare for next week's game.

If the Redhawks wanted to lull Mizzou and the Ohio Valley Conference into underestimating them this season, mission accomplished.

The Redhawks opened with a 47-yard drive that ended with a fumble inside the Bearcats' 20.

From that point, the next 40 minutes belonged to Southwest Baptist, which built a 28-12 lead by marching for 430 yards in that span.

"We could have easily blown them out," Samuel said, reflecting on the first drive. "That's the difference of one or two plays here or there. If we go and punch it in there, we probably punch in another one. That was a two-touchdown turnaround because we were there [at the Bearcats['] 12] and they went there and scored. Momentum is still one of the most indescribable things."

There's momentum, and there's the Bearcats' offense, directed by sophomore Steve Gachette, who passed for 298 yards on 33-of-51 passing. Throw in 243 yards rushing, with 111 by Jeff Finnell, and SBU nearly was unstoppable much of the night.

They sustained drives, following that first scoring drive of 88 yards with another of 80 yards, one for 76 and the final one for 93 yards.

"They're bigger than we are," said SBU second-year coach Keith Allen, whose record is now 0-12. "We knew if we played a high-tempo offense, which we are, we should be in better shape than them, and I think that showed up. Our objective was to take the holes they gave to us and play at such a pace they would wear out faster."

A Division II team came in confident of wearing out Southeast.

Allen was proud of catching Southeast trying to adjust defensively four times -- twice without enough men on the field and twice with too many men on the field, forcing timeouts. Freshman DeAndre Brown's 43-yard run touchdown to the left side in the first quarter came with Southeast's defensive line trying to make a change and get in position.

Given Southwest Baptist's offensive success, how do the Redhawks possibly stop Mizzou's spread offense?

"Good question," Samuel said. "We made a lot of simple, some overly excited mistakes, just some little things that can drive you nuts, that we have to clean up.

"With this kind of offense, we play quite a bit of zone coverage and you've got to be very precise. This quarterback runs around just enough to avoid the rush and buy time. So we've got to be more precise, and we will."

The Redhawks defense had two sacks, but it's doubtful they'll even meet Chase Daniel next weekend.

The Redhawks cleaned up just in time Thursday, as the wheels had fallen off the bandwagon and rations were running low. With better things expected after Samuel's 7-15 mark in his first two seasons, it wasn't a very good start.

Enter Mike Williamson with some possession receptions and a touchdown, Miles Edwards and his 80-yard reception from Lillard, and Doug Spada, who hit a 47-yard field goal with 1:41 to play to tie the game.

"I was a little concerned because I didn't know if we were going to snap out of it," Spada said. "But anyone can come in and make a big play for us. It happens every day in practice."

It helped that SBU missed on a 33-yard field goal, and then freshman Philip Klaproth forced a fumble when SBU drove into Southeast territory again in the fourth quarter.

"We gave the game away," Allen said. "We had it won in so many different ways."

He lamented a dropped kick return and a safety earlier in the game nearly as much as the fourth-quarter drive enders and the Lillard-Edwards bomb.

"There was enough out there that we should have won easily," he said.

But Allen complemented the Redhawks: "That's the one thing I can say about SEMO the last two years: We've been ahead and they've come back on us."

Samuel also noted his team's effort.

"That's as good a fourth quarter and overtime as I've seen kids play," he said. "We had a lot of adversity, a couple of injuries, and they just fought right through it."

But it's going to take more than that to make this season come out any better than the last two.

Toby Carrig is editor of semoball.com

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