MAGNOLIA — After scoring 50 points in each of their first two games of the season, the Southern Arkansas football team found it a little more difficult to put points on the board against the No. 1 team in the Great American Conference, but the 20 points SAU was able to score against Southwestern Oklahoma on Saturday night at Wilkins Stadium, were enough to give the Muleriders a win, 20-17.
In last week’s game against East Central, SAU rebounded from a week one loss to Southeastern Oklahoma thanks, in large part, to an outstanding defensive effort. At the start of Saturday night’s game, the Muleriders’ (2-1, 2-1 GAC) defense was once again spectacular as they forced three punts and came away with an interception on the Bulldogs’ (2-1, 2-1 GAC) first four possessions of the game.
While the Mulerider defense was bottling up SWOSU, Tyler Sykora and the offense got off to a fast start. On SAU’s first offensive play of the game, senior running back Mark Johnson gashed a hole for a 21-yard rush. Three plays later, Sykora hooked up with wideout Jack Brown for a 42-yard touchdown to put SAU up 7-0.
After forcing SWOSU to punt to close out the first quarter, Sykora and the Muleriders looked to begin the second quarter by building on their 7-0 lead, but on the first play on that drive, Sykora’s pass would be picked off by SWOSU’s Brandon Washing. Six plays later, the Bulldogs knotted the game at 7-all as QB Dustin Stenta threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to M.J. Porter.
The remainder of the half would be difficult on both offenses as each team was forced to punt on their next two possessions. Both teams would get themselves into field goal range on their final possession of the half, but the Bulldogs were the only ones to make good on their field goal attempt as Michael Perez hit a 19-yard field goal as time expired in the first half, giving SWOSU a 10-7 lead heading into the locker room.
As the second half began, the defensive battle that controlled the end of the first half remained as each team was forced to punt on their opening drive of the half. On their second drive of the half, SAU, who started that drive near midfield, was on the verge of ending the run of tough luck on offense as Sykora hit his early-season favorite Chris Terry for a big 36-yard gain, but the Bulldogs’ Noe Kipulu abruptly ended the great offensive play as he forced a fumble, which was recovered by his teammate Ryan Feller.
Despite the turnover, SWOSU was unable to turn that into points as they were forced to punt five plays later. After no points on SAU’s ensuing possession, the Muleriders took the ball away from Southwestern as Demario Thomas intercepted Stenta deep in SWOSU territory.
Starting their possession already in the redzone, the Muleriders turned to their workhorse Johnson, but the SWOSU defense did a good job bottling up Johnson and forcing SAU to go for a game-tying field goal. Lining up from 27-yards out, freshman kicker Austin Shoemake made good to knot the game at 10-all.
After forcing a SWOSU punt on the first possession of the fourth quarter, the Muleriders would convert on two third downs as they started a methodical drive into SWOSU territory. After the drive stalled at the SWOSU 32, the Muleriders lined up to punt once more, but the snap would go directly to Paul Walker-Hall on a fake attempt. SWOSU was able to snuff it out as Walker-Hall gained only a yard.
A play later, the pendulum shifted back in favor of SAU as senior linebacker Hayden Rybiski picked off a Stenta pass and returned it to the SWOSU 25-yard line.
On the ensuing drive, Sykora would connect with Zikerious Ware twice to get the ball down to the SWOSU 14. Consecutive incomplete passes set up a key third down for the Mulerider offense. Following a called timeout by SAU, the Muleriders would come out and turn to the halfback screen pass to combat an aggressive SWOSU pass rush. The play-call was brilliant as it caught Southwestern out of position and SAU’s Johnson was able to run in untouched for the go-ahead score, 17-10.
With 1:40 left in the game, Shoemake added some insurance as he made good on a 31-yard field goal attempt to push SAU’s lead out to 10 points, 20-10.
That field goal proved to be crucial just three plays later as SWOSU’s Stenta hit a wide open M.J. Porter for a 60-yard touchdown toss to make it a 20-17 game.
SWOSU’s ensuing on-side kick attempt was recovered by SAU, but the attempt did not travel far enough as it was, giving possession back to SAU. A kneel down, a pair of rushes by Johnson, and a scramble and throw away by Sykora dwindled the clock to just two seconds.
Looking for a miraculous play from their own 43, SWOSU’s Stenta looked for Porter once more, but the pass would fall harmlessly to the ground to end the game.
For the game, Sykora was 23-of-40 for 366 yards and two touchdowns. He also threw two interceptions. Johnson rushed for 70 yards on 22 carries, but his touchdown catch may have been the biggest of the game. Brown led the Muleriders in receiving with 153 yards on seven catches. Defensively, reigning GAC Defensive Player of the Week, Mark Spaight led the team in tackles with 12 (nine solo, three assisted). Behind him was Tate Mustin with nine tackles (six solo, three assisted). Hayden Rybiski, Demario Thomas and James Thurston accounted for the Muleriders’ three interceptions on the night.