The longest yard haunts SE

Sunday, September 30, 2001

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It has often been said that football is a game of inches -- and Southeast Missouri State University's Indians found that out the hard way Saturday afternoon.

The Indians were stopped just inches short of the Tennessee State goal line on the final play as the host Tigers hung on for a 20-14 victory in the Ohio Valley Conference opener for both teams at Adelphia Coliseum.

TSU, ranked 25th nationally in NCAA Division I-AA, improved to 3-0 overall while dropping Southeast to 2-3. The Indians' three defeats have been by a total of 13 points.

"So close, yet so far," said Southeast coach Tim Billings, shaking his head.

That pretty much sums up Saturday's final, frantic seconds for the Indians, who trailed virtually the entire way but seemed headed for a second straight comeback victory after having rallied past Illinois State the previous week.

After Dimitri Patterson blocked a 25-yard-field goal attempt by TSU's Joey Hudak with 2:52 left that kept Southeast behind by only six points, the Indians began a possession from their own 10-yard line.

Tailback Curtis Cooper did most of the damage on the ensuing drive, catching five passes for 54 yards from quarterback Jeromy McDowell -- who was not expected to see action after injuring a knee last week but came on in the third quarter -- and also rushing twice for 19 yards. Two TSU penalties for 21 yards also helped out.

On fourth-and-five from the TSU 15 with 22 seconds left, Cooper took a short swing pass from McDowell and very nearly scored, but it was ruled TSU knocked him out of bounds at the one with 13 seconds left.

"I thought I was in," said Cooper.

Still, the Indians had a first-and-goal from the 1 with one timeout remaining. They appeared to be in excellent shape.

"With one timeout left, I thought we'd try to sneak it in one time. If we didn't make it, we'd call timeout. Then we'd throw it once, and we could still run it one more time," said Billings.

On first down, McDowell was stopped short on a sneak and the Indians were indeed forced to use their final timeout with eight seconds left. On second down, McDowell lofted a pass into the left corner of the end zone that went off a leaping Willie Ponder's hands amid tight coverage.

Now the clock was down to three seconds left and the game came down to one final play. The handoff went to Cooper, but he slipped almost immediately after receiving the ball from McDowell and he stumbled down just short of the end zone. As the Tigers celebrated, the Indians slumped in agony.

"I was thinking of jumping, but I just got caught on the turf and went down pretty much right away," said Cooper. "We all thought we would win it at the end, but it's disappointing."

Said Billings, "Our kids played hard and truly believed we'd win the game. Cooper just stumbled on the run or we might have won."

But there's no way Cooper could be faulted because he had another huge day, rushing for more than 100 yards for the fourth time this season. Cooper finished with 146 yards on 22 carries and he also caught nine passes for 70 yards.

"Curtis is a great football player," said TSU coach James Reese. "It was by the grace of God that we pulled this one out."

The Indians, who used three quarterbacks in the game -- Bobby Brune started, gave way to Rashad West in the second quarter and West was replaced by McDowell in the third period -- were once again hampered by a poor turnover ratio.

For the third straight game, the Indians forced no turnovers. During that same time, they have turned the ball over 11 times themselves, including four Saturday.

"That's three games in a row where we've gotten no turnovers," Billings said. "We're 1-2 in those three games and if we get a few turnovers, we win them all. We have to get better in that area."

TSU, led by 344 passing yards from quarterback Shannon Harris, kept the Indians on their heels much of the afternoon. But the Tigers, who outgained Southeast in total yards 470 to 418, never could put away the Indians, thanks in large part to a whopping 20 penalties for 169 yards called against the home squad.

The Tigers, who never trailed, jumped on top 7-0 with 4:15 left in the first quarter on a 1-yard run by LaRon Key. That capped an 88-yard, seven-play drive.

TSU only needed to move 14 yards to make it 14-0 midway through the second period. Eric Joyce intercepted a Brune pass and returned it 31 yards to the Southeast 14. Four plays later, Key went over from three yards out with 7:30 left before halftime.

Billings then put West -- who had not played previously this season -- in at quarterback. And that move paid immediate dividends as he led a 56-yard, six-play drive. West passed five yards to Ponder for the TD and Derek Kutz converted, making it 14-7 with 4:46 left before the intermission. That was also the halftime score.

TSU's Carlos Wright returned the opening kickoff of the second half for a touchdown, but it was called back by -- surprise -- a penalty.

Hudak's 30-yard field goal with 7:06 left in the third quarter put the Tigers up 17-7.

But the Indians came back to make it 17-14 with a 68-yard, six-play drive. Punter Kyle East had a big play as he ran 24 yards on a fake punt. Then McDowell, on his first play of the day, threw a short pass to Ponder, who made a move and was gone on a 39-yard TD. Kutz converted with 3:20 remaining in the period.

Hudak's 25-yard field goal on the second play of the fourth quarter put the Tigers up 20-14. Southeast had solid opportunities on its next two possessions, the first ending on a McDowell interception after the Indians had reached the TSU 30 and the second ending on downs near the TSU 40.

Still, after Hudak's potential game-clinching 25-yard field-goal try was blocked by Patterson, the Indians had one more chance -- but they came up short by inches.

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