Better than your typical homecoming formula

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Homecoming games are supposed to be blowouts.

Bring in a hapless loser and give them a beating. That's the proper script for a homecoming game.

Bringing in the 19th-ranked team in Division I-AA? Not such a good idea.

All's well that ends well, though, and Southeast Missouri State's homecoming game could not have ended any better.

The Redhawks put together another second-half rally to erase a two-touchdown drive, hit a tying field goal as time expired in regulation and then scored the only points in overtime for a 27-20 victory against Tennessee State.

Their first conference victory of 2008 also marked the first conference loss for the Tigers, who were the last of the OVC unbeatens.

For the Redhawks, it had to be sweeter than beating up on a patsy.

And they did it in typical Redhawks fashion: A no-show for the first quarter and much of the first half, actually, before keeping TSU out of the end zone over the final 30 minutes. They rallied for their second overtime win at home, again never leading until the extra session.

But unlike that opening game against Division II Southwest Baptist, a team that would be a good candidate for anyone's homecoming visitor, this rally came against a legitimate nationally ranked team contending for the OVC championship.

This was the kind of win that might convince people third-year coach Tony Samuel can build a team capable of playing at this level.

"I feel like it got the program up a notch," Southeast senior quarterback Houston Lillard said, "but I also feel like it boosted our confidence. We can come out next week knowing we can beat anybody. We beat the team with the best record, and we didn't counter on all the mistakes they made. Once we get ready to counter on mistakes, we can win easy and it won't even be a close game."

That would be refreshing.

Because with the combination of slow starts -- Southeast still hasn't scored in the first quarter -- and what Tennessee State was able to do on offense in the first half, this nearly turned into a blowout victory for the visiting team. The Tigers had the ball for more than 20 minutes in the first half and had 280 yards of offense to Southeast's 83.

The Tigers scored a late TD to take a 17-3 halftime lead. It could have been worse.

"When they scored just 17 points in the first half, we knew we had a chance," said defensive back Bryan Blanfort, who ended one TSU drive with an interception in his end zone. "We just had to play good in the second half."

Southeast has yet to wilt in the second half, but this marked its best effort at doing more than just not quitting.

"Today, we just came out on top," said senior linebacker Nick Stauffer, who had 21 tackles. "We played better today."

"We executed," Lillard said. "We actually got first downs and we moved the ball and we had confidence in what we were doing. "The whole game, we didn't turn the ball over and our defense got three turnovers. We should have put more points on the board, but we came back when the time was right."

Lillard was among those most ready to celebrate the homecoming victory. He had been pulled from last week's 24-21 loss at Eastern Illinois when he threw an interception in the first quarter.

With the possibility of a youth movement that would have kept freshman Matt Scheible as the quarterback to get the Redhawks ready for a critical fourth season under Samuel, now 10-20 at Southeast, Lillard was able to regain his spot.

"My dad called me after the [EIU] game. A lot of times, your parents think their children can do no wrong," Lillard said, "but my dad just called me and said, 'You need to look at yourself in the mirror. I don't know if you're taking your position for granted, but you need to do what the coaches ask. You can't blame anybody but yourself.' I looked in the mirror and I listened to my dad and I just told myself to do whatever it takes for the team to win and try not to make so many plays, make smarter decisions."

The OVC's No. 2 passer won the showdown with No. 1 by throwing for two touchdowns and no interceptions.

The last emotional upset victory for Southeast at home was the 32-25 victory against Jacksonville State that closed the 2007 season. That could have been the kind of win that created momentum for this campaign, but it didn't.

The Redhawks have four games left, beginning with Saturday's home game against OVC contender Eastern Kentucky, to show if they can build off this one. Four games left to show whether they really can play with anybody.

Toby Carrig is editor of the regional Web site semoball.com.

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