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Southeast Missouri State football team falls short of upset at Eastern Illinois
Southeast Missouri State threatened to spoil Eastern Illinois' Ohio Valley Conference championship hopes.
But the host Panthers scored the game's final 23 points Saturday to rally for a 39-20 win in Charleston, Ill.
EIU, which finished last in the OVC a year ago, clinched at least a share of the OVC title in its final league game of the season.
Later the Panthers learned they claimed the outright OVC crown and the conference's automatic playoff berth after Tennessee-Martin lost to Tennessee Tech 45-44 in overtime.
The Panthers, 2-9 each of the past two years, improved to 7-3 overall and 6-1 in OVC play in their first season under coach Dino Babers.
"They're having a very good year. They inherited some good players and the new coaching staff has done a good job," said Southeast coach Tony Samuel, whose squad fell to 3-7 and 2-5. "You'd like to have beaten them, but I'm happy for them."
Southeast fell behind 10-0 early but regrouped and trailed just 16-14 at halftime.
"At halftime I thought we were in great shape," Samuel said.
The Redhawks had golden opportunities for touchdowns on their first two possessions of the third quarter but had to settle for short field goals.
Senior Drew Geldbach booted kicks of 30 and 22 yards as Southeast gabbed a 20-16 lead.
"Only getting field goals there, I thought that hurt us," Samuel said.
EIU scored the go-ahead touchdown with 40 seconds left in the third quarter, against a strong wind.
Junior quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo hit junior wide receiver Erik Lora with a short pass. Lora broke toward the left sideline and split two Southeast defenders, then raced to the end zone for a 43-yard touchdown and a 23-20 lead.
"Erik's TD catch was at a time when we needed it," Babers said. "That touchdown helped us flip momentum especially when we scored going into the wind."
EIU broke the contest open by scoring two touchdowns and a field goal on its next three possessions while Southeast's offense struggled.
"I thought we hung in there really good but it got away from us," Samuel said.
The Panthers, with the wind in the first quarter, drove 60 yards for a touchdown and 73 yards for a field goal to jump in front 10-0. Geldbach missed a 31-yard field goal against the wind between those scores.
Southeast, with the wind in the second quarter, put together an 87-yard drive keyed by redshirt freshman quarterback Scott Lathrop's 39-yard run.
Senior tailback Renard Celestin's 4-yard touchdown run early in the period made it 10-7.
The Redhawks then helped EIU out when junior punter Joe Vucic was ruled to have gone down on a knee to field a bouncing snap.
EIU took over at Southeast's 29-yard line and scored on a tipped pass to go ahead 16-7, although the PAT failed.
"That hurt us. We pretty much gave them that touchdown," Samuel said.
Lathrop's 1-yard touchdown run with 2 minutes, 31 seconds left in the opening half capped a 68-yard drive and cut the deficit to 16-14.
Southeast then went ahead in the third quarter before the Panthers turned things around.
The Redhawks had just 45 second-half yards and finished with 233 total yards, 194 on the ground.
"We didn't move the ball well in the second half," Samuel said. "They played a good brand of defense."
EIU, fifth nationally in total offense at 505 yards per game, finished with 441 yards, 252 in the final half.
Southeast had a big advantage in time of possession, 37:42 to 22:18.
"We did the things we thought were necessary, with the possession," Samuel said of trying to limit EIU's quick-strike, explosive offense.
Lathrop rushed for 102 yards on 27 carries. He was sacked four times as EIU had five sacks, including one late on true freshman quarterback Blake Jackson.
Lathrop posted his third 100-yard rushing performance of the season.
"He played well. He ran the ball well," Samuel said.
Senior tailback Levi Terrell added 96 yards on 22 attempts.
All-American senior linebacker Blake Peiffer posted a game-high 11 tackles to lead Southeast's defense.
Peiffer, who has 110 tackles, became the first Southeast player to record 100 or more tackles in consecutive seasons since Adam Casper in 2006 and 2007.
Sophomore linebacker Daniel Siehndel added nine tackles.
Sophomore cornerback Reggie Jennings intercepted his second pass of the season, setting up one of the short field goals in the third quarter.
Sophomore defensive end Trent Peterson recovered a fumble forced by senior defensive end Justin Love.
Senior nose tackle Joe Malolo had Southeast's lone sack, his first of the season.
Garoppolo completed 25 of 35 passes for 257 yards and two touchdowns. He has thrown for nearly 3,400 yards this season.
Lora caught 15 passes for 178 yards. He leads the nation with 115 receptions, tied for fifth all-time on the Football Championship Subdivision single-season list.
Lora had already broken the OVC single-season reception record before braking the league's single-season record for receiving yards in a season Saturday.
Lora's 1,479 receiving yards surpassed the previous conference mark set by Southeast's Willie Ponder in 2002.
Southeast ends the season Saturday with a 1 p.m. kickoff at Murray State (4-6, 3-4).