Redhawks football team faces stiffest challenge of season
Friday, September 11, 2009
The Southeast Missouri State football team takes a major step up in class this week.
Southeast's annual game against a Division I-A opponent -- at Cincinnati on Saturday night -- will net the university's athletic department $275,000.
The Redhawks hope their visit also nets them a win, although the odds are stacked against them.
Since moving up to Division I-AA in 1991, Southeast is 1-13 against Division I-A squads, including eight straight losses. The lone win came at Middle Tennessee State, 24-14 in 2002.
Southeast has faced teams from BCS conferences just three times, all in the past three seasons under fourth-year coach Tony Samuel.
The Redhawks have been outscored 174-13 in those games -- an average margin of 58-4 -- with the results being 52-3 at Missouri last season, 59-3 at Cincinnati in 2007 and 63-7 at Arkansas in 2006.
If Monday's opener for Cincinnati is any indication, the Bearcats compare favorably with the past three powerhouse squads that routed Southeast.
Defending Big East Conference champion Cincinnati began the season with a 47-15 romp at league rival Rutgers, which actually was favored.
That performance seemed to douse thoughts that the Bearcats might be a bit down after suffering heavy graduation losses from a group that won a school-record 11 games, played in the Orange Bowl and finished ranked 17th nationally.
Cincinnati, which lost seven all-conference performers from last year, has moved into the top 25, at No. 23.
"This is a great football team that has a chance to do some good things," Samuel said.
While Cincinnati returned just one defensive starter from 2008, the Bearcats welcomed back many of their key offensive performers.
That includes senior quarterback Tony Pike and senior wide receiver Mardy Gilyard.
Pike, who threw for 2,407 yards and 19 touchdown last year to earn second-team all-Big East honors, completed 27 of 34 passes for a career-high 362 yards and three touchdowns against Rutgers.
The 6-foot-6 Pike was 20 of 25 for 286 yards and two scores in the decisive first half that saw Cincinnati build a 31-7 lead.
"He's a great quarterback," Samuel said.
It was 45-7 after three quarters as the Bearcats outgained Rutgers 564 to 293 in total yardage.
"Definitely a byproduct of our experience," Pike said regarding the speed and efficiency of Cincinnati's no-huddle, spread offense. "I think our offense [against Rutgers] was light years ahead of where we were last year at this time."
Gilyard caught 81 passes while averaging 15.8 yards per reception and scoring 11 touchdowns in 2008. He was first-team all-Big East and also the league's special teams player of the year after averaging 27.6 yards per kickoff return and scoring two touchdowns.
Gilyard caught eight passes for 89 yards and a TD against Rutgers.
Brian Kelly has led Cincinnati to 10 and 11 wins in his first two seasons to nab Big East coach of the year accolades both years. The Bearcats previously had recorded just one other 10-win campaign.
"They've come a long way. They're playing great football," Samuel said. "I remember when that was a basketball school."
Southeast's game at Cincinnati in 2007 saw the Bearcats lead just 19-3 at halftime before they outscored Southeast 40-0 in the second half.
Twenty-one current Southeast players saw action in that contest. All-American senior punter Doug Spada accounted for the Redhawks' only points with a 25-yard field goal.
"I think it'll help," Samuel said. "We shouldn't have that deer in the headlights look."
A host of current key Cincinnati players also took part in the game. Gilyard caught eight passes for 134 yards, including a 56-yard touchdown. Pike came off the bench after things got out of hand.
Southeast opened the season by demolishing NAIA Quincy 72-3 as the Redhawks set a modern-day record for most points in a game. The Redhawks led 58-0 at halftime.
That performance turned some heads because Southeast received 13 votes in this week's Sports Network I-AA poll.
A strong showing Saturday likely would gain the Redhawks even more recognition.
Regardless of Southeast's long-shot status -- Las Vegas oddsmakers rate Cincinnati a 47-point favorite -- Samuel said the first objective always is to try to win the game.
At some point in the contest, if a victory becomes out of reach, then Samuel likely will remove his starters with an eye on next week's Ohio Valley Conference opener against Eastern Illinois.
"Sometimes you get mismatched," Samuel said. "You never want your kids going in there not ready to compete.
"We'll see if we can compete for four quarters and go from there."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.