‘Necks survive grizzly test, 20-13

Jeff Reynolds

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WIU linebacker Edgerton Hartwell and lineman Tony Zitzka stack up YSU back in last weeks action.-Mark Kennedy/Photo EditorNeither team tagged the same type of billing on this game as they had their last, and for one of those teams it showed – fortunately for the No. 5-ranked Leathernecks, they came out of hibernation in the second half spoiling the upset bid of the Southwest Missouri State University Bears, 20-13.

One week after what was arguably the school’s biggest regular-season victory ever – a 14-0 drubbing of then top-rated Youngstown State University – head coach Randy Ball said the ‘Necks had two choices.

They could either take that win as fuel to the season-long fire, increasing the team’s desire to succeed, or sit back and admire the masterpiece.

“I was worried that we may come out flat after defeating Youngstown State last week, and we came out very tight,” Ball said.

The ‘Necks fell behind in the first quarter- the first time their opponents have scored first- on a 38-yard field goal by Travis Brawner.

Brawner connected after the Bears’ 13-play, 66-yard drive stalled just outside the ‘Neck 20-yard line with five minutes and six seconds left to play in the first quarter.

SMSU continued the scoring effort midway through the second quarter when quarterback Derek Jensen plunged over the goal line for a 1-yard touchdown run.

Brawner added the extra point, capping a 10-play, 38-yard drive that consumed three-and-a-half minutes. Jensen turned in a solid performance, completing 24 of 39 pass attempts for 221 yards.

Trailing 10-0, the ‘Necks scratched and clawed to get themselves on the board when sophomore place-kicker Joe Lopez answered the call with a school-record 55-yard field goal with 5:04 left in the second quarter.

A quiet first half came to a close with the ‘Necks trailing the Bears (2-2, 1-0) by seven points, 10-3, until Ball fired his troops up at halftime.

“I told them to relax and we started playing our game in the second half,” Ball said. “Quality teams find a way to win and we proved we were a quality team.”

Proving that characteristic didn’t come easily for the ‘Necks, they swapped field goals: a 25-yarder by Brawner which answered Lopez’s 43-yarder, raising the score to 13-6 in SMSU’s favor.

Senior running back Aaron Stecker, who had his first sub-100 yard rushing performance of the season, totaled 83 yards on 29 carries with two touchdowns.

Stecker pulled the ‘Necks even at 13 with five ticks left in the third quarter on a 7-yard touchdown run, keeping his personal streak of 17 consecutive games with a score alive.

Both defenses held their ground in the fourth, until junior nickelback Ryan Taylor came through with a spark on special teams. Taylor blocked Brawner’s punt inside the SMSU 20-yard line with just under eight minutes left in the game.

“Ryan’s blocked punt was a huge play,” Ball said. “With the game tied, that set up our offense deep in their territory to set us up.”

With the ball on the Bear 8-yard line, offensive coordinator Doug Downing called Stecker’s number once again and Stecker scored on a 6-yard trot into the end zone.

With the ‘Necks leading for the first time in the game, the pressure swung to the defense, who stuck to their norm, stalling the Bears after they drove the length of the field to the ‘Necks 10-yard line.

Ball stuck to his word, increasing Zanders’ pass attempts to 21, completing 10 and throwing one interception tallying 137 yards through the air.

The interception connected with seven different receivers.

The ‘Necks continue on the road next week, traveling to Carbondale, Ill., and another tough game against Southern Illinois University. SIU knocked off the University of Northern Iowa earlier in the season and lost by a three-point margin to GFC-leading Illinois State University.

The ‘Necks tangle with the Redbirds Oct. 24 at Hanson Field in what could be the game of the year for both clubs.