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Southeast drops OVC opener
A big gamble and a big penalty helped doom Southeast Missouri State in its Ohio Valley Conference opener Thursday night.
Both items came during a fourth-quarter drive by Tennessee Tech that proved to be the difference in the Golden Eagles' 29-27 victory.
An announced Houck Stadium crowd of 6,110 and a national television audience on ESPNU saw an exciting, evenly played game that was close throughout.
But that was of little consolation to the Redhawks (1-2), who finally grabbed their first regulation lead of the season early in the fourth quarter, only to see the Eagles (2-1) answer right back.
"It's very disappointing," Southeast junior wide receiver Walter Peoples said. "It hurts."
Southeast sophomore tight end Bradley Brown -- who has four career catches, including three this year -- scored his first collegiate touchdown on a 21-yard strike from senior quarterback Houston Lillard on the first play of the final period.
"It was great to catch my first touchdown," said Brown, who had just one reception last season as a true freshman. "But I'd rather have the victory."
Brown's TD put the Redhawks ahead 27-23. Southeast's only previous lead this year had been in overtime of a win over Division II Southwest Baptist in the season opener.
On Tech's ensuing possession, the Eagles faced a fourth down from their own 29-yard line. They only needed a few inches for a first down, but 13 minutes still remained and the safe play would have been to kick the ball back to the Redhawks.
Instead of punting, Tech coach Watson Brown decided to go for it knowing that if the Eagles didn't make a first down Southeast might be able to all but put the game away with a touchdown.
"They [Southeast] were moving the ball. They were playing on our end," Brown said. "We had to do something to get out of our end.
"We had to do it and I thought we could make it."
The gamble paid off as Derrian Waters picked up a yard.
Tech proceeded to drive to Southeast's 30-yard line. It was second-and-1.
Waters lost two yards, then a false-start penalty pushed Tech back to the 37 as the Eagles faced third-and-8.
Southeast senior defensive end Hannibal Vaivao stormed in to sack quarterback Lee Sweeney at the Tech 46.
But Vaivao was called for grabbing Sweeney's facemask, a 15-yard penalty. Instead of a likely punt, the Eagles got an automatic first down at the Southeast 22.
Several press box observers who watched a replay said the facemask call was correct.
"I couldn't feel it," Vaivao said. "But the refs see what the players don't see. It happens that way."
Samuel said he could not see the facemask, but acknowledged "that was a tough one."
Sweeney, one of the top quarterbacks in Tech history, was injured on the play and did not return. But the Eagles were still in the end zone three plays later to go up 29-27 with 7:40 remaining.
The PAT was wide, leaving the door open for Southeast to win with a field goal. But the Redhawks failed to pick up a first down on their final two possessions.
Southeast's last gasp ended with an incompletion on fourth-and-9 from its own 25.
Tech took over with 1:26 left. The Eagles picked up one first down and then kneeled down three times to end things.
"It hurts the most when you know you should have won," Lillard said.
Southeast did not commit a turnover while forcing three turnovers.
"It's not often that you lose the turnover battle 3-0 and win the game," Brown said.
The Redhawks were hurt by not doing more after the turnovers -- interceptions by senior cornerback Kendall Magana and sophomore rover Bryan Blanfort and a fumble recovery by junior cornerback Eddie Calvin.
All three of Tech's miscues gave Southeast the ball at the Eagles' 38-yard line or deeper.
But the Redhawks came away with only two field goals, from 33 and 27 yards by junior Doug Spada. The other possession ended in a Spada miss from 36 yards.
"We had every opportunity to put the ball in the end zone," Lillard said. "Once again we're not finishing off drives.
"The defense gave us good field position. We couldn't take advantage."
Southeast managed just 306 total yards, less than the Redhawks had at sixth-ranked Missouri Saturday. Southeast had only 117 second-half yards.
The Redhawks' defense improved, allowing 411 yards but only 167 in the second half. Southeast had been torched for at least 541 yards in each of its first two games.
"We should have been playing four quarters of defense," Calvin said.
Once again Southeast started slow as Tech built a 10-0 first-quarter lead. But for most of the final three periods no more than seven points separated the squads. The biggest second-half difference was six points.
"Every game we get behind," Peoples said. "We need to work on coming out strong from the first quarter."
Samuel had no complaints about his team's effort.
But Samuel did point to three plays that loomed particularly large in his mind.
One was the facemask penalty.
Another was a 63-yard kickoff return by Tech's Donte Gay in the final seconds of the first half immediately after Southeast had pulled into a 17-17 tie.
The return resulted in Justin Kraemer's 51-yard field goal with 2 seconds left that gave Tech a 20-17 halftime lead.
The third play was a 63-yard touchdown run on a reverse by Tech's Henry Sailes late in the second quarter. Southeast appeared to have Sailes hemmed in before he cut back and outran several defenders down the opposite sideline.
"Those three plays hurt us," Samuel said.
Enough to ruin the Redhawks' OVC opener.