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Muleriders rally to beat East Central in overtime

by ERICK TAYLOR Arkansas Democrat-Gazette | September 9, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

ADA, OK – After being stuck in neutral for more than three quarters, Southern Arkansas put its best foot forward late to pull out a thrilling victory Thursday night.

The Muleriders got a go-ahead two-yard touchdown run from O.J. Jones in overtime, then came up with a fourth-down stop to beat East Central (Okla.) 24-17 at Koi Ishto Stadium om Ada, Okla.

Jones' score capped a gripping rally for SAU (2-0, 2-0 Great American Conference), which trailed 17-0 at halftime. The Muleriders were still down 17-3 in the fourth quarter before scoring two touchdowns in the final 1:11 to send the game into the extra session.

The final outcome seemed improbable for SAU considering how badly it struggled in the first half. The Muleriders had 133 yards of offense, punted four times and never advanced past the Tigers' 25-yard line over the first two quarters.

"We just played so poor in the first half," SAU Coach Brad Smiley said. "It was unreal. We couldn't do anything we needed to do. We weren't throwing and catching, we're missing blocks, we had three third-down stops and we gave them up.

"A stupid late hit, a defensive holding and a facemask call. It was literally like, 'Who are we right now?' But the guys overcame a lot of adversity." Jones finished 21-of-43 passing for 304 yards with 1 touchdown and carried 22 times for 92 yards and 2 scores for the Muleriders, who were also locked in a battle with Southeastern Oklahoma State last week in their season-opener until they used a fourth-quarter flurry to pull away. Jariq Scales added 74 yards rushing ,while Matthew Whitten caught four passes for a team-high 86 yards.

Traair Edwards was 26 of 39 for 167 yards for East Central (0-2, 0-2), which was in control for the majority of the game. But the Tigers' offense sputtered in the second half with just 54 total yards.

It was a rough beginning for both teams at the start. The two combined for seven punts in the first quarter -- four of which were by East Central. But SAU did miss out on a prime opportunity on its first possession.

After forcing the Tigers into an opening three and out, the Muleriders caught a break when the East Central punter shanked a 17-yard kick. SAU took over at the Tigers' 43 and advanced to the 25, but the drive stalled after it turned the ball over on downs.

East Central eventually got things going in the second quarter. The Tigers took a 7-0 lead when Edwards ran for a 16-yard touchdown with 11:12 remaining to finish an eight-play, 57-yard march.

After another punt from the Muleriders, Edwards directed an 11-play, 59-yard drive, with his 7-yard scoring run putting East Central up 14-0. The Tigers later added a 34-yard field goal from Tommy Yousey to take their 17-point lead into the locker room.

While East Central was able to find its footing in that second quarter, SAU didn't.

The Muleriders had just 57 yards in the period and ventured into Tigers' territory only once, and that ended on an incomplete Hail Mary pass from the East Central 33 on the final play of the first half.

Even when something did go right for the Muleriders, it was disallowed.

Jones scored on an apparent 14-yard run on SAU's initial series in the third quarter, but it was negated because of a penalty. The Muleriders had to settle for a 23-yard field goal from Hayden Nitz with 9:05 to go in the third quarter.

SAU had chances to cut into its deficit on its next two drives as well but couldn't convert on fourth down on either drive after getting to the Tigers' 36 and 22, respectively. The Muleriders also had a pass intercepted in the end zone with 3:23 left in the game after putting together a 12-play, 67-yard drive.

But the tide turned after Jones found Kendall Williams for a 38-yard touchdown to pull his team with 17-10 with just over a minute remaining. SAU would recover the ensuing onside kick and cover 53 yards in 42 seconds, culminating with Jones' 4-yard scoring run.

After Jones' score in overtime, the Tigers managed to get to the SAU 10 on their first opportunity, but Edwards' pass on fourth down sailed, resulting in a celebration for the Muleriders.

"This is two weeks in a row," Smiley said. "You figure we're a second half team, I guess. That's not too bad to be."

Print Headline: Muleriders rally to beat East Central in overtime


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