Indians not short on drama

Sunday, September 15, 2002

YPSILANTI, Mich. -- Southeast Missouri State University might not be a dominant football team this year. In fact, the Indians almost certainly aren't.

But it would probably be difficult to find a more resilient and mentally tough squad anywhere in the country than the Indians, who came ever-so-close Saturday night to what might have been the biggest win in the program's history.

For the second year in a row, Eastern Michigan needed a late touchdown to beat the Indians. Sure, the Eagles rank as one of the nation's worst Division I-A teams. But any time a I-AA squad knocks off a club from college football's highest division, it's regarded as a major upset.

The Indians didn't get that upset -- and what would have been the program's first victory over a I-A team -- as the Eagles scored with less than a minute left to win a wild 35-32 shootout.

But Saturday's game continued the Indians' pattern from the previous two contests of this season: Southeast finds itself in all kinds of trouble in the late going but somehow finds the character to wriggle free and make plenty of plays when things count the most.

In the opener against Division II Arkansas-Monticello, the Indians needed a fourth-down conversion late in regulation to keep a tying touchdown drive alive. They went on to win 42-41 in double overtime.

At Southern Illinois in the second game, the Indians saw a 14-0 fourth-quarter lead disappear as SIU stormed from behind for a 14-14 tie. The Salukis appeared to have all the momentum. But Southeast answered with a long TD drive and scored in the final minute to win 21-14.

Then Saturday at Eastern Michigan, Southeast trailed 28-17 early in the fourth quarter and the Eagles appeared ready to break things open. But again the Indians responded with two touchdowns to grab a late 32-28 lead that would ultimately turn into their first loss of the season.

But no matter. The trait of playing well under pressure could bode well the rest of the way for the Indians, who suffered several close losses last year and figure to be involved in quite a few more down-to-the-wire contests this season.

The Indians are in an extremely difficult stretch of their season that will ultimately feature four straight road games. They began the road swing last week at SIU, followed by Saturday's test at Eastern Michigan, next week's game at Southwest Missouri State and a Sept. 28 contest at I-A Middle Tennessee State.

Southeast coach Tim Billings figures if the Indians can survive this stretch in good shape physically, then they can really make their move the rest of the way as four of their final seven games are at home.

Saturday's defeat was definitely a bitter pill to swallow for the Indians, but if they can keep their heads up and use it as a positive, then maybe some more nail-biting victories are in store for the rest of the year.

Its label says Division I-A, but Eastern Michigan will never be confused with some of the nation's premier programs, not in talent level or the hoopla -- rather, lack of hoopla -- that surrounds the Eagles' home games.

Visit the town of most major teams on a home football weekend and the joint will be jumping. You'll think you just happened upon the biggest combination state fair/cocktail party/kegger in America, with fans flooding the streets intent on partying hard.

The scene outside Rynearson Stadium prior to Saturday's contest featured no such sites, save for a few determined tailgaters who were intent on having a good time despite a crowd of just 9,581 for the game and a decidedly tame atmosphere that made it almost seem like a high school JV affair.

It can't help Eastern Michigan that the campus and town of Ypsilanti are almost right on top of Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan.

Trying to build a decent football program competing in the shadow of the Wolverines has to be tough. And that might be one of the big reasons the Eagles have been so bad in recent years.

Marty Mishow is a sports writer for the Southeast Missourian

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