Indians' tailback reaches milestone

Monday, November 5, 2001

Curtis Cooper acknowledged that reaching the milestone in a loss made it something bittersweet.

But he found it tough to hold back his smile Saturday night after becoming just the third player in Southeast Missouri State University football history to rush for 1,000 or more yards in a season.

Cooper gained 75 yards on 18 carries and scored two touchdowns as the Indians suffered a 42-24 loss to Eastern Kentucky at Houck Stadium.

With one game still remaining -- this Saturday's non-conference home contest against Quincy -- Cooper has 1,069 yards as he is averaging 5.2 yards per carry.

"It is bittersweet because I wish we could have won the game," said Cooper following the Indians' fourth straight setback, which dropped them to 3-7. "But I set this goal at the beginning of the season and I didn't know how it would turn out, so I'm pretty pleased about it."

Especially since Cooper is in his first season as a collegiate tailback. Although he was a standout running back in junior college, he was used as a wide receiver last year during his rookie season with the Indians, when he caught 30 passes and was also one of the Ohio Valley Conference's leaders in punt and kickoff returns.

This year, after much good-natured prodding from Cooper, the Southeast coaching staff decided to move the senior back to his natural position. And he has thrived from day one.

"I let the coaches know as often as possible last year that I was a really good running back," said Cooper with a laugh.

Versatile performer

While ranking third in the OVC in rushing, Cooper is not just valuable running the ball out of the backfield. He has caught 44 passes and leads the OVC in punt returns with nearly 16 yards per attempt. Cooper also leads the OVC and is fifth nationally in all-purpose running.

"Curtis is such a valuable player for us," said Southeast coach Tim Billings. "He does so many things, not just run the ball. He catches passes, returns punts and kicks. He's just had a great year and I'm really happy for him."

The 5-foot-8, 180-pound Cooper is powerful despite his relative lack of size. And he has exceptional quickness if not game-breaking speed. But he made it a point to praise the Indians' offensive line that is extremely young and has held up well despite being a major question mark entering the season.

"They've really done well," he said. "If they stay together, they're going to be a really good unit. It's going to be fun to follow them over the next few years."

In addition to being only the third Southeast player to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, Cooper now has the second-best single-season rushing total in school history.

The other two Indians to reach the 1,000-yard milestone are Kelvin Anderson and Dione Tyler. Anderson, the school's career rushing leader, did it in all three of his collegiate seasons from 1992-94, topped by a school-record 1,371 in 1992. In the other two years he gained 1,016 and 1,005. Tyler accomplished the feat in 1995 with 1,005.

Ponder closes in

Willie Ponder, who caught five passes for 71 yards Saturday, is on the verge of becoming only the second Southeast player to have 1,000 yards receiving in a season. He has caught 66 passes for 984 yards.

With a good performance against Quincy, Ponder could break Farron Haley's single-season records of 72 receptions and 1,116 yards, set in 1989.

Southeast freshman kicker Derek Kutz has had a strong season, but he had not been called on to attempt a field goal in several weeks.

However, Kutz finally got another opportunity in the fourth quarter Saturday and he came through with a college career-long 45-yarder. The St. Vincent High School product is 6-for-7 on field goals and 27-for-29 on extra points.

According to unofficial press box statistics Saturday, linebacker Ricky Farmer led the Indians in tackles with 11, including three for loss.

Farmer and freshman defensive back Chaun Tate both had a quarterback sack.

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