Southeast Missouri State football responds big in Pink Up win over Austin Peay
From all the emotion and sentiment that came from honoring survivors and those lost to cancer at Saturday's Pink Up Game, the Southeast Missouri State football team found reinforcement to the lesson constantly preached by its head coach.
The message is one of response.
The Redhawks felt the pressure from a hungry Austin Peay squad when their lead was trimmed to 10 points on two occasions during the third quarter, but Southeast countered both times, gouging out 24 second-half points and a season-high 276 yards rushing en route to a 41-21 victory at Houck Stadium.
"The whole day was just really emotional for me," Redhawks coach Tom Matukewicz said. "I got to meet a lot of the cancer survivors, and the players got to meet some of them in our team meal before the game. It's more than just a game -- it's about impacting the community.
"We talked a lot about how we've got to respond, and what I told the players is, 'Can you imagine getting a phone call saying you have cancer?' But at the end of the day, you've got to respond. You can have a pity party, but the work just begins. So that was the message. I thought our players responded."
Southeast (3-5, 3-2 Ohio Valley Conference) carried a 17-0 lead out of the halftime break but lost 7 yards on its opening possession of the third quarter. Following the three-and-out, APSU (0-8, 0-6 OVC) took over from its own 30 and trimmed SEMO's lead to 17-7 on its first play, a 70-yard run by freshman quarterback JaVaughn Craig with 12 minutes, 37 seconds left in the third quarter.
"Those were bad. Those hurt, and you're just so disappointed. But you correct it," Matukewicz said. "The players have got to move on from it. ... That's the thing about this team, though. They're not up and down. They're fairly consistent with their attitude and their effort. They make mistakes and all that, which created those plays, but it didn't let them get them down."
The Redhawks punted the ball away on their next possession, but on first-and-10, junior Omar Pierre-Louis recovered a fumble by Craig to set the offense up with a short field at the Governors' 47-yard line. It was the only turnover of the game, and Southeast took advantage, cashing in on a 16-yard TD run by senior Tremane McCullough that extended the lead to 24-7 with 5:23 left in the third.
Once again, APSU quickly tacked on a score when freshman running back Kentel Williams broke free along the right sideline for a 68-yard TD run, pulling the Govs back within 10 points, 24-14, with 4:54 left in the quarter.
That margin barely lasted, as sophomore Cameron Sanders returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards to pay dirt and gave Southeast a 31-14 advantage at the 4:41 mark of the period. It was the Redhawks' first kickoff return since Sanders took one 99 yards to the house on Nov. 14, 2015, at Jacksonville State.
"We've been close," Matukewicz said. "He had nice runs before, and he's a guy that can do that. So we've talked a lot about it, but really, it's those other 10 guys that we've got to get blocking for him and all that stuff."
After the defense forced a three-and-out, senior RB Will Young broke loose for a 59-yard run that positioned Southeast inside the red zone. He pounded his way into the end zone two plays later on a 7-yard scamper that pushed SEMO's lead to 38-14 with 1:06 remaining in the third.
Young led the Redhawks on the ground with 16 carries for a career-high 154 yards. He eclipsed the century mark for the fourth time this season and averaged 9.6 yards per carry.
"It always starts up front. The offensive line, the D-line -- they do all the hard work, and it's the skill guys who get all the credit," Young said. "Throughout the season, we just continue to work each day -- day in and day out -- and today it paid off."
As a team, the Redhawks totaled a season-high 515 yards of total offense. They averaged 6.1 yards per rush, as Matukewicz gave credit to his offensive line but was also complimentary of the team's two-pronged attack in Young and McCullough, who combined for 246 yards on the ground.
"It's just kind of nice when you look at it," Matukewicz said. "You've got Will Young, who's kind of got that thunder, and then you kind of bring a guy in and maybe get that lightning in there where you can block it once and get it. So it just felt a little better in the run game with having him a bigger piece of that."
The Redhawks settled for a 30-yard field goal by senior kicker Ryan McCrum to take a 41-14 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Junior wide receiver Jared Beard, who entered the game as the top receiver in the league, hauled in a 4-yard TD pass from Craig inside the final minutes, but Matukewicz was pleased with his defense's ability to limit an APSU team that has scored 45 percent of its points this season in the fourth quarter.
"The sideline was the same the whole time. The energy out on the field was the same the whole time," Matukewicz said. "We played a lot of players there toward the end, and it didn't look different. It looked the same, which is a good sign."
A 23-yard field goal by McCrum gave Southeast a 3-0 lead on its opening possession before junior quarterback Jesse Hosket directed the Redhawks on a nine-play scoring drive. Junior RB Chase Abbington hauled in a pass from Hosket in the left flat and dashed into the end zone from 14 yards out, pushing SEMO's lead to 10-0 with 4:40 left in the first quarter.
Hosket threw for 230 yards on 20-of-24 passing (83 percent) with one touchdown and no interceptions. He distributed the ball to eight different players, including redshirt freshman Kristian Wilkerson, who finished with five catches for a game-high 70 yards receiving.
"We've got a lot of guys who can make plays, and we try to get them all in there. And they can do it," Hosket said. "They were making great catches today, and we had a lot of time to make it happen."
McCullough scored the first of his two TDs on a 22-yard run at the 2:48 mark of the second quarter, darting his way through the line before using his speed to separate from defenders and prance into the end zone. The 5-foot-7 WR/RB hybrid finished with 134 yards from scrimmage, including 97 on the ground.
"We lined him up there more. We also handed it to him more," Matukewicz said. "He's an impact player, so you're just trying to create those opportunities. ... It just felt better today. He was able to take some of those to the house."
With the exception of allowing two big TD runs in the third quarter, the Redhawks performed well against the Govs' option offense. They held APSU to 5 of 14 (36 percent) on third down and kept Beard in check with only 59 yards receiving.
Craig rushed the ball 12 times for 126 yards and was 12-of-17 passing (71 percent) for 90 yards. Senior Timarious Mitchell got the start at QB but was replaced by Craig in the second half. Mitchell completed 8 of 12 passes for 57 yards.
Junior outside linebacker Chad Meredith paced the Redhawks' defense with nine tackles, while senior inside linebacker Roper Garrett contributed eight tackles, including two for loss. Senior free safety Ryan Moore and freshman ILB Zach Hall each added seven tackles.
"We played really well in the first half. We came out strong," Garrett said. "We knew that they were going to try to run the ball. This year we've done really good at stopping the run and holding them to long third downs and make them try to make a play. We got them three-and-out quite a bit."
It's the 24th straight loss for the Govs, who currently have the longest active losing streak in Division I football.
While APSU is at the bottom of the conference standings, Southeast will face the OVC's best in No. 2 Jacksonville State at 1 p.m. Saturday. It'll be homecoming when the Redhawks square off against the Gamecocks, who have won 21 straight conference games, and Matukewicz believes his team will be more than ready.
"I think when you look at how we've played at home, it's always been good," Matukewicz said. "We're not undefeated at home, but we've never laid an egg at home like we've done on the road. So I just think the guys like playing at home. They feel good, a lot of energy.
"We want big games in November. This is a big game. This is a major opportunity, so now, just by man, what is it you've got to do to improve? And what is it I need to do a week from today to give us a shot to win the game?"
Editor's note: Correction made to reflect Zach Hall's proper last name.