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Kearney, Neb. – The Emporia State Hornets scored 20 unanswered points and made a couple of late defensive stops to rally past Nebraska-Kearney, 20-17, Saturday afternoon at Ron & Carol Cope Stadium at Foster Field. The Hornets (2-1) have now taken 11 of the last 13 meetings with the Lopers (2-1). UNK still leads the all-time series, 12-11.
A Homecoming crowd of 6,217 saw the Lopers jump out to a 14-0 lead nine minutes into the action but the Hornets used a ball control offense to grab a 20-17 early in the fourth quarter. UNK got one first down after Emporia moved ahead for good but then was forced to punt.
The winning touchdown came on fourth and one from the Loper eight-yard line with 10:43 left. For the second time on the day, senior quarterback Braxton Marstall had to chase down a high snap. This one went through his hands but bounced back right back to him. He managed to regain his composure and throw a dart to senior receiver Justin Brown from about 20 yards out (officially an eight-yard completion).
“Tale of two halves … Emporia did a good job with adjustments at halftime. I thought our defense did an outstanding job against a high-powered offense. Their offense controlled the clock in the second half and made us work,” said Loper head coach Josh Lynn. “It does sting; it’s Homecoming and we had a chance to win. But we didn’t execute in the second half like we needed to in order to win.”
With 6:10 remaining, the Lopers got another crack at it and moved the ball from its own 24-yard line to the Hornet 15. The big gainer was a 20-yard pass completion from QB Alex McGinnis (Crete) to receiver Trey Lansman (Harlan, Ia.). On the previous play, ESU was called for pass interference on the 6-7 former basketball star.
On third down, an apparent 15-yard TD toss from McGinnis to Lansman in the left corner of the end zone was ruled incomplete. True freshman Brian Covarrubias (Grand Island) then saw his 32-yard field goal bang high off the right post. He made a 31-yarder late in the first half to make 17-0.
Kearney still had another chance to win or tie the game as the defense made a stop and the offense got the ball back at its own 43-yard line with 46 seconds left. McGinnis completed two passes for a total of 20 yards but then threw an incomplete pass with two ticks left. That setup a “Hail Mary” and the prayer wasn’t answered an ESU defender hit McGinnis as he was winding up, resulting in an incomplete pass.
Known for its quick passing game, Emporia ran 51 times for 204 yards (4.0 ypc) and two TD’s. Veteran back Landon Nault ran 29 times for 124 yards with Marstall scrambling for 72 yards on nine carries.
“The game plan was to make their running game beat us. We weren’t going to let that excellent QB (Marstall) beat us. They moved it but holding that offense to 20 points is a good effort,” said Lynn. “We’ve got to move the ball so our defense isn’t on the field that long. And if you put up 17 points early, you’ve got to put up some more to win games.”
Emporia seemingly had the ball the entire third quarter when it scored 14 points and finished with 86 offensive plays to UNK’s 71. At one point, the play differential was in the high 20’s. Marstall completed 20 of 35 passes for 132 yards and that one TD. Eight different Hornets caught a pass led by Brown (five, 35 yds.) and Tyler Harris (five, 34 yds.).
The Hornets took the second half kickoff and marched 90 yards in 11 plays. They had a long drive to end the first half but an errant snap resulted in a 32-yard loss and wiped off a potential field goal try.
UNK had three “three-and-outs” to start the second half and, after the second, the Hornets drove 46 yards in nine plays to make it 17-14. A pass interference penalty on fourth and eight from the UNK 33-yard line kept the drive alive. Overall, the Lopers were docked for 109 yards on nine penalties. The final scoring drive covered 55 yards and lasted 11 plays. ESU converted two third downs before the “lucky bounce” on fourth down.
“Offensively, we didn’t get anything going until late in the second half. We had some missed blocks in there and we were backed up on our side of the field (in the second half) and had to play conservatively. They did a good job of keeping us off the field by establishing drives and controlling the ball. That’s what we like to do,” said Lynn.
UNK came in averaging 379 yards on the ground but mustered 189 today (3.7 ypc). McGinnis had team-highs in carries (21) and yards (73) with junior back Darrius Webb having 67 yards on 19 totes. He scored from nine and eight yards, respectively, to start the scoring.
“Our double option scheme got going in the first half but they did a good job of shutting that down and making us go in between the tackles,” said Lynn.
Finishing with 316 yards, the Lopers took the opening kickoff and went 82 yards in 10 plays. Emporia then decided to go for it on fourth and five from the Loper 35-yard line. A Marstall pass deflected off the hands of a receiver and right into the hands of senior corner Malik Webb (Roper, N.C.).
A 2017 All-MIAA pick, Webb raced 62 yards down the field to setup Webb’s second score of the game. He finished the day with three tackles and two pass breakups.
Linebackers Jace McDown and Gary Woods II (10) combined for 22 tackles to lead the Hornet defense while Loper inside backer Sal Silvio (Kansas City) had a game-high 15 stops. Next, junior safety Dallas Vaughn (St. Louis) was in on 12 tackles (eight solo) with senior end Tye Spies (Mullen) making eight. Finally, senior OLB Cliffond Taylor (Miami) had seven tackles and one of UNK’s three TFL’s.
Both defenses had fourth down stops; Emporia when it trailed 14-0 late in the first quarter and UNK early in the third when it was up 17-7. Both efforts came in or near the red zone. UNK heads to nationally-ranked Pittsburg State next Saturday night. The Gorillas play Northeastern State tonight.