BY AUSTIN CANNON
After 60 minutes of a back-and-forth contest that resulted in a 28-28 tie, Drake and Morehead State entered overtime on different trajectories. The Bulldogs had tied the game with only 38 seconds remaining while the Eagles’ attempt at a winning drive sputtered immediately.
But overtime is sometimes where momentum goes to die. In the span of three overtimes, the two teams played some of their best football of the afternoon while also failing to execute in the most crucial moments. Those mistakes proved fatal to the Bulldogs and their already slim Pioneer Football League title hopes.
In the third overtime, MSU had its best chance to put the game away after Drake had turned the ball over on its possession. A 23-yard field goal try from Shavi Bash was all it would take. And unlike in the first overtime period, he converted and the Eagles dealt Drake a crushing 38-35 defeat.
“Our guys played a great football game,” head coach Rick Fox said. “We ended up on the short end and it’s frustrating and it stings and it hurts right now, but they have nothing to be ashamed about because they played together as a team.”
Drake will not qualify for the FCS playoffs this season. Initially, the Bulldogs would need to win their next two games and have San Diego, Dayton and MSU all lose their final three games. Dayton and MSU, however, play each other next week; one of those teams will win, giving it a tiebreaker over the Bulldogs no matter what else happens in the season’s final three weeks.
The Bulldogs had their chances to win what will likely be the best game of the year in the PFL. After Andy Rice threw a 6-yard touchdown to Keegan Gallery to force overtime with less than a minute remaining, Drake found itself in an almost perfect position when Rice found tight end Eric Saubert for a 20-yard gain on the first play of overtime.
“Everyone was pretty confident,” Saubert said.
Two no-gain plays later, Drake had third and goal from the 5. Rice had Zach Zlabis wide open in the end zone, but the pass was high. The ball glanced off Zlabis’s fingertips and deflected upward before falling into the lap of MSU’s Trey Watkins.
Coming up empty put enormous pressure on the Drake defense, and it was able to halt the Eagles at the Drake 20. In came Bash for a 37-yard field goal. Before Saturday, he had made eight of nine attempts for inside 40 yards. But his low kick was blocked and recovered by Drake, and the two teams moved into the second overtime.
MSU took back the lead instantly. Backup quarterback Jack Sherry found a wide-open Justin Cornwall in the end zone on the Eagles’ first play. It was Cornwall’s third touchdown of the game and the first for Sherry, who entered the game for the injured Austin Gahafer.
Cornwall had slipped through the coverage; he was left completely uncovered in the end zone.
“We had the right call,” safety Caz Zyks said. “It was kind of a miscommunication deal.”
The Bulldogs were slower to respond. Four Conley Wilkins carries got the ball to the 9, but a Rice incompletion brought fourth down. Drake needed five yards or the game was over. After a timeout, Rice took the snap and zipped a quick pass over the middle that Saubert snatched out of the air just past the goal line. The extra point again tied it, and the game refused to end.
Drake again had the ball first to start the third overtime. On third and four from the 15, Rice evaded pressure and scrambled for a first down. Rice was hit on the play and sustained a stinger on his throwing arm, Fox said. Drake called a timeout to evaluate its quarterback. After getting checked out, Rice returned to the game.
He took a long sack on second down to move the ball back to the 19. On the next play, Rice rifled a pass toward Saubert, who was blanketed in coverage. The ball went directly to MSU’s Justin Grier, who collected his seventh interception of the year, setting up his team’s winning field goal.
The game was like an hours-long boxing match. Drake landed the first punch in the first quarter with a 7-0 lead, but MSU recovered and hit back. The Bulldogs responded and retook the lead and Eagles again answered the bell (14-14). MSU was the aggressor in the second half, twice jumping out to seven-point leads, but Drake weathered the blows to tie the game and send it to overtime.
Lost in the overtime excitement was the big performance from Conley Wilkins. He ran for 205 yards on the ground with a long of 51. Fox attributed that to the play of the injury-depleted offensive line, which he didn’t want overlooked.
“The job that they did up front, especially with all the adversity the offensive line has been through this year, that’s something I hope doesn’t get overshadowed from this game.”
Saubert finished with five receptions for 86 yards and two touchdowns, one of which was a 34-yard pass from Rice in the fourth quarter. Gallery caught eight passes for 80 yards and his overtime-inducing touchdown.
John Hugunin led the defense with 15 tackles, and Zyks had an interception in the first quarter to go with his nine tackles. MSU aired it out for 324 yards, about a quarter of the game’s 882 total yards.
When Fox and MSU coach Rob Tenyer met at midfield after the game, Tenyer, who coached together with Fox at Centre College, expressed remorse that one team had to lose. It was a classic.
“This was college football at its greatest,” Fox said.
One team had to lose, though. This time, it was the Bulldogs.
“We stood together as a team,” Zyks said. “The scoreboard doesn’t show that.”