CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. - In the end, despite the heroics by both
the offense and special teams, Thursday night's Ohio Valley
Conference opener hinged on one last stand by the Tennessee Tech
They slammed the door on four downs in the final minutes, and the Golden Eagles escaped Cape Girardeau, Mo., with a thrilling, gut-wrenching 29-27 victory over Southeast Missouri.
A national television audience on ESPNU, plus an announced crowd of 6,110 in Houck Stadium, watched momentum slide back-and-forth throughout the contest before the Golden Eagle defense came up with four consecutive stops while holding a precarious two-point lead.
The offense owned the football for more than 12-and-a-half minutes of the fourth quarter, and put together an amazing seven-minute touchdown drive that proved to be the winning points.
And the special teams came up with huge plays, including kickoff returns, three field goals and strong punting all contributing to the victory.
It all added up to a successful start of the conference season for the Golden Eagles, who now get to hold first place in the league with a 1-0 record. Tech is 2-1 overall, and the win handed head coach Watson Brown his 100th career coaching victory.
With the momentum jumping from one team to the other throughout the contest, the turning point proved to be a 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in which the Golden Eagle offense just continued to grind it out.
It started at the TTU 20-yard line with 14:42 remaining after SEMO had taken its first lead of the night, a 27-23 advantage, on a 21-yard touchdown play on the first play of the quarter.
Tech quarterback Lee Sweeney, who recorded his ninth career 200-yard passing game, found sophomore receiver Colin Allen on three consecutive completions for 10, 13 and 16 yards, moving the Golden Eagles into SEMO territory.
One of the biggest plays of the night came on a third-and-eight from the SEMO 37, when the Redhawks appeared to have Sweeney sacked for an eight-yard loss.
But the tackler grabbed Tech's junior signal-caller by the facemask, earning a 15-yard personal foul penalty and give Tech a first down at the 22.
Sweeney suffered a rib injury on the play and yielded to backup Josh Lowery, who kept the march going with a five-yard completion to Derrian Waters and a 15-yard pass to Henry Sailes.
On first-and-goal from the two, Waters followed a bruising block by Derrick Outlaw and bulled into the end zone to put Tech on top, 29-27.
Justin Kraemer, who enjoyed a sensational career-best night, missed the PAT to leave the lead at two points.
The Tech defense held and forced a punt, but the Golden Eagle offense also stalled and freshman punter Nick Campbell unloaded a 49 yard punt, backing the Redhawks all the way to their own 24.
Needing three more points from their all-America kicker Doug Spada, who had already converted two field goals, the Redhawks couldn't handle the pressure served up by Tech's defensive line.
First, Martini Hilliard knocked down a pass, then Brendon Bredon Fisher came up with a tackle. On third down, the pressure from Hilliard and Fisher rushed QB Houston Lillard into an underthrown pass. On fourth down, senior Maurice Smith knifed in front of the receiver and knocked down the Redhawks' last chance.
Tech owned the first quarter, scoring on both of its first two possessions to build a 10-0 lead. Waters raced 23 yards for the game's first touchdown and a 7-0 lead midway through the quarter, and Kramer nailed a 37-yard field goal with 1:11 to play in the period to make it 10-0.
Southeast Missouri turned the tide in the second quarter, having its way for much of the period and tying the game at 10-10. Walter Peoples grabbed a 20-yard TD pass from Lillard, and Spade made a 33-yard field goal for the game's first tie score.
It was a reverse that Sailes turned into an unplanned double reverse -- changing directions and racing all the way across the field toward the right sideline after being bottled up -- and ended in a 63-yard touchdown scamper late in the first half that gave the Golden Eagles a 17-10 lead.
The play by Sailes was chosen as the ESPN "Play of the Day" and aired all night long on the network's Sports Center.
"One of the finest runs you'll ever see in college football" is how ESPNU analyst Jay Walker dessribed Sailes' electrifying 63-yard TD run. Click here and select the Tech game on the index to view the network's recap of the game.
One of the biggest momentum swings might have come in the final seconds before halftime. After piecing together a one-minute, 40-yard scoring drive to tie the game at 17-17 with just 18 seconds remaining, SEMO chose to kick deep.
Freshman Dontey Gay raced through the Redhawks cover team for a 63-yard return to the SEMO 34 with six seconds left. Out trotted Kraemer, who matched his career-long with a booming 51-yard field goal to put Tech right back on top, 20-17, at the break.
It capped a wild stretch in which the teams scored three times in a span of 1:42.
Kraemer's third field goal of the night, a 45-yard kick with 10:29 to play in the third quarter, pushed Tech's lead to 23-17, but the Redhawks didn't quit.
Instead, they took advantage of a Tech fumble - the third turnover of the night by the Golden Eagles - and turned it into a field goal to make it 23-20.
SEMO pinned Tech deep and gained good field position, despite a 40-yard Campbell punt, taking over near midfield at the SEMO 46. Eight plays later, Lillard found Bradley Brown on a 21-yard pass for the Redhawks' first lead of the game, 27-23, with 14:54 to play.
That's when the Tech offense put together its seven-minute march to regain the lead.
Tech finished the night with 411 yards of offense,including 152 on the ground and 259 through the air. SEMO finished with 306 yards of total offense, with 119 rushing and 187 passing.
Sailes had his first career 100-yard rusing game, finishing with 113 yards on eight carries. With six catches for 51 yards, he accounted for 164 all-purpose yards.
Waters managed 45 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries.
Sweeney finished 22-for-31 for 229 yards with two interceptions. Lowery went 4-for-5 for 30 yards.
Allen was the game's top receiver with a career-best seven catches for 89 yards. Freshman Tim Benford, the team's leading receiver this year, had five catches for 48 yards.
Linebackers Corey Reed and Jake Kiser topped the defense with 12 tackles each, with Reed chalking up two tackles-for-loss. Taron Ryce had eight tackles and broke up four passes, while Smith had seven tackles, one TFL, and broke up one pass.
The Golden Eagles travel to Kalamazoo, Mich., next weekend to face the Western Michigan Broncos Saturday evening.