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Critical penalty undermines Southeast's improved 'D'
Southeast Missouri State was on its way to its "best" defensive performance of the year Thursday night.
More importantly, the Redhawks had found a way to keep Tennessee Tech out of the end zone and -- gasp -- even make them punt.
Southeast's defense, which yielded 1,377 yards in the first 10 quarters of the season through halftime Thursday, clamped down on the Golden Eagles in the third quarter, and Southeast pulled ahead of someone for the first time all year during regulation early in the fourth.
But a good defensive play turned into a personal-foul facemask penalty, and Tennessee Tech finished off the go-ahead drive en route to a 29-27 victory Thursday night at Houck Stadium in the Ohio Valley Conference opener.
"It's a tough loss for us, I'll be honest," said captain Kendall Magana, who had an interception in the first half for one of three turnovers forced by Southeast's defense.
"It's going to be hard to get over that," said Hannibal Vaivao, the defensive end who was flagged as the guilty party on the key play.
A fiery guy who sparked the team during the pre-game warmups, Vaivao was left wondering about the play himself.
"I couldn't feel it," he said. "But the refs see what the players don't see. It happens that way."
Tennessee Tech, which hadn't scored a touchdown since a 63-yard reverse by Henry Sailes late in the first half, was in the midst of key drive in the fourth quarter, having converted a fourth-and-inches just shy of its own 29.
The Golden Eagles moved into Southeast territory but, after a pre-snap penalty, faced third-and-8 at Southeast's 37-yard line. Quarterback Lee Sweeney was surrounded. First, defensive end Ben Gugler wrapped up Sweeney. The quarterback escaped, only to find himself trying to push away Vaivao with a stiff arm.
Vaivao pulled down Sweeney, who suffered a rib injury on the play, for a 9-yard loss, but a flag flew in.
"It was a quick thing, a mistake just coming over the top," defensive tackle Nick Ketelsleger said. "It was just real quick, a little mistake, not on Hannibal at all."
Vaivao said he thought the flag might go on the quarterback.
"I don't understand," he said. "I thought it was his facemask on me. He grabbed my facemask and pushed me away."
Given new life at Southeast's 22-yard line, Tennessee Tech cashed in three plays later.
A night when Southeast's defense made impressive strides within the course of the game suddenly turned sour.
"I believe, compared to other games, defensively we really stepped up," Vaivao said. "We all have heart. We lost the game, but each of us were all ready to fight for each other."
Southeast took a solid shot to the jaw from Tennessee Tech in the opening period, falling behind 10-0 as the Golden Eagles racked up 125 yards of offense on 15 plays.
But with interceptions by Magana and Bryan Blanfort in the second period, the Redhawks pulled into a 17-17 tie. A special teams return set up Tennessee Tech for a late field goal and a 20-17 halftime lead.
But the Golden Eagles were limited to 70 yards on 15 plays in the third period, arguably the best defensive quarter of the season so far.
"It was just tightening up our tackles," Ketelsleger said. "Nothing big."
Vaivao said the defensive line rotation was more effective in the second half. Tennessee Tech, which had just two third-down plays in the entire first half and converted one, was 1-for-3 in the third period.
The momentum seemed to be turning when Southeast sent Tennessee Tech's offense off the field with a three-and-out late in the third quarter, bringing in Nick Campbell for his first punt.
Southeast, which had a field goal on the previous drive set up when Eddie Calvin picked up a fumble forced by Joshua Jackson, cashed in after the punt with a touchdown earlier in the fourth period.
The Redhawks, for the first time this season, had the lead in regulation play.
And they nearly held it.
The loss might not fall quite into the heartbreaking category, but it was a tough blow to the Redhawks' chances of showing improvement from last year's 3-8 season and 1-6 conference mark. Tennessee Tech was ripe for the beating, on Southeast's home soil.
"I'd love to give then credit on this one," Magana said, "but I thought we had the manpower and athletes to stop them. We just didn't show up in the first quarter and kind of dug ourselves a hole."
The players swear, however, heart is something the Redhawks have plenty of. And they say they won't let this mistake repeat.
"A lot of guys left it on the field today," Magana said. "We played hard for each other."
Added Vaivao: "We're going to come out this week and practice, practice, practice, and come out hitting in the first quarter this time."