From SWOSU Sports
Doug Self, Sports Information Director
WEATHERFORD – It has almost become a given that football games between SWOSU and Southern Arkansas will be decided by one possession and come down to the wire in the fourth quarter. While that didn’t appear to be the case early on Thursday, the Muleriders came from 17 points down to stun the Bulldogs 21-17 in the season-opener at ASAP Energy Field.
SWOSU’s offense showed their quick-strike ability and built a 14-0 lead at the end of the first quarter. Quinton Gale recorded his first career interception on the third play of the game, returning the Barrett Renner pass to the SAU 39-yardline to give his offense great field position. Six plays later, Kenneth Martey lost the ball as he crossed the goal line, but left tackle Garrett Luke was in position to recover the fumble and put the Bulldogs on top 7-0 less than three minutes in.
A sack by TJ Harris helped SWOSU’s defense force a three-and-out on the next drive, getting the ball back for SWOSU deep in the Bulldogs own territory. That would not deter the offense as Marc Evans found his favorite target – returning All-American D.J. Jones – streaking past the Muleriders defense and 86 yards later the Bulldogs had a 14-0 lead. The touchdown reception by Jones marked the third-longest of the NCAA Division II era at SWOSU.
Southern Arkansas mounted a drive and attempted to answer, but their 13-play drive came to a conclusion when Deric Robertson returned an SAU fumble from the three yard line to end the threat. SWOSU mounted a 13-play drive of their own to open the second quarter, but their scoring opportunity was held to a field goal after a trio of rushes from inside the five yard line were kept out of the end zone. Tyler Peterson connected from 21 yards to make it 17-0 with 10:55 to play in the half.
SAU got on the board with 4:15 to play before halftime on a 12-yard touchdown run from Michael Nunnery on fourth-and-one, sending the game to the intermission with SWOSU up 17-7. The Bulldogs got the ball out of the break and had a seven-play drive stall on fourth down with a dropped pass from Martey. Sensing opportunity, SAU marched 74 yards in nine plays to get within one score on a 12-yard touchdown pass from Renner that made it 17-14 early in the third.
Evans and Renner traded interceptions three plays apart after that, with Kevin Joseph making his second pick of the contest in his first game as a Bulldog since 2014. SWOSU mounted another 10-play drive, but again the Dawgs were kept from scoring when three straight incomplete passes led to a turnover on downs at the SAU 27-yard-line.
Field position became the story of the game in the fourth quarter, with SWOSU only managing to cross midfield once in the final period. Southern Arkansas continued to play for field position and punt the Bulldogs back near their own goal line. The game turned on a shanked eight-yard punt from Dalton Jackson that put the Muleriders in prime position at their own 31-yardline. It would take SAU just three plays to make SWOSU pay as Renner found Karonce Higgins for a 26-yard strike that completed the comeback and gave the Muleriders their first lead of the contest.
SWOSU would not go down easy, putting together their best drive of the quarter on the ensuing possession. Evans found Jones for a 25-yard gain to cross midfield. A pair of runs from Karltrell Henderson put SWOSU in a third-and-five situation, but a pair of incomplete passes turned the ball over on downs once again, allowing SAU to run the clock with 5:29 to play.
While trying to run out the clock, the Muleriders got just one first down, but they wouldn’t return the ball to SWOSU until there was just 1:52 to play. On second down, Evans was blasted by a blitzing Mulerider and his rushed pass found the arms of SAU’s Lorenzo Watkins instead of the intended receiver and the visitors were able to run out the clock on the ASAP Kickoff Classic.
SWOSU won the yardage battle, out-gaining Southern Arkansas 380-to-333 on opening night, and the Bulldogs defense brought six turnovers to the home sideline, but it was not enough to halt the comeback. The victory is the fifth for SAU over the Bulldogs in six contests, and the fourth by four points or less.
D.J. Jones had a career-best (at SWOSU) 141 receiving yards on seven catches with a touchdown in the opening game of his senior season. He was the primary target of Marc Evans, who completed just 18-of-41 passes for 234 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. Karltrell Henderson rushed for a team-best 80 yards on 15 carries as SWOSU pounded out 146 yards on the ground with 3.8 yards per carry.
Kevin Joseph had six tackles and two interceptions to lead the defense, with Conner Bays and Quinton Gale also taking their turns at picking off SAU’s quarterback. Austin Loomis had a team-best 11 tackles (six solo, five assist) along with a fumble recovery while Michael Adefolarin had several big hits as part of his 10-tackle performance.
The loss is the third consecutive opening-season defeat for the Bulldogs and it snaps SWOSU’s five-game winning streak at ASAP Energy Field. SWOSU (0-1, 0-1 GAC) will return to action with a long road trip to Arkansas-Monticello next Saturday evening.