WARRENSBURG — The motto that Central Missouri coach Jim Svoboda offered to his squad for the fourth quarter was simple.
“You are one play away from a beautiful day.”
On a picturesque fall day at Walton Stadium, the dark clouds of a three-game losing streak hung over the Mules sideline as UCM watched Nebraska-Kearney whittle a 35-7 second half lead down to a 35-35 tie with six minutes, 32 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
“There was a little bit of a sense of panic on the sideline,” Svoboda said. “My message to the coaches and everybody was just play the next play. That is all you can do.”
Redshirt-freshman Trevore Sanders provided the play, more specifically the hit, to send away the looming possibility a fourth straight loss.
The Maryville, Illinois-native barreled down on Loper’s running back Montrez Jackson after the redshirt-freshman caught the ball out in the flat, colliding with enough force to jar the ball free. Sophomore Codie Bell handled the rest, scooping up the loose ball and taking it back 45-yards to the Lopers 15 yard line.
“Trev made a great play, made a good hit and I saw the ball on the ground, just picked it up and started running,” Bell said.
Central Missouri took full advantage of the short field as sophomore Kyle Bradley hit senior Kyrion Parker for the game-winning score from six-yards out to give the Mules a 42-35 win over the Lopers Saturday, Oct. 27.
The Mules (4-5) entered its final game in the month of October in the midst of a three-game losing skid and a loss away from guaranteeing the first losing season in the nine years under Svoboda.
“We were a little bit in no man’s land in terms of the program in the last eight or nine years,” Svoboda said. “One thing I was sure of was the team hadn’t lost its fight and passion to play the game.”
Central Missouri’s defense, seven days removed from giving up 438 yards on the ground to Pittsburg State, came out with a point to prove. Through the first three Loper drives, the Mules shut down the 11th ranked rushing attack in Division II, forcing two punts that sandwiched a turnover on downs.
The Mules offense couldn’t find any rhythm in the open quarter either, punting on its first three drives of the game. Walton Stadium gave the Mules a home bounce on the third punt as Zach Davidson’s boot bounced off the turf and hit a Nebraska-Kearney player in the back. Jalen Marsalis recovered the special teams snafu, setting the Mules up at the UNK 19.
Back-up quarterback Bradley put the first points on the board with a six-yard run up the middle to give UCM a 7-0 lead at the 1:14 mark in the first quarter.
Redshirt-freshman Jeremy Hunt was the Mules starter, but UCM went into the contest expecting to rotate Bradley and Hunt at the signal caller spot.
“I think it is a challenge,” Svoboda said. “They both had their bright spots, they both did some things that were inexperienced.”
Nebraska-Kearney (4-5) answered with a 11-play, 79-yard drive that ended in a three-yard touchdown run by quarterback Alex McGinnis to tie the game at 7-7. The Mules had stopped the drive, but a defensive pass interference call kept the drive alive. UCM was flagged 17 times for 173 yards.
“That many penalties is uncharacteristic of us,” Svoboda said.
Central Missouri closed the half with a pair of unanswered touchdowns.
Parker opened the 14-point swing with his first of three touchdowns on the afternoon with tip drill score. UNK’s senior cornerback Famous McKinnon went up to break up a pass from Hunt to Parker, but ended up tipping the ball into the hands of the senior receiver from Houston, Texas. Parker stumbled backwards to complete the highlight reel catch and give UCM a 13-7 edge following a missed PAT by Alex Langer.
The Mules tacked on its final score of the first half on a 26-yard connection from Hunt to Davidson, who was draped by a Loper defender in the end zone.
“What happened today is our receivers came alive and made some sensational catches,” Svoboda said. “That kind of bailed us out today.”
Hunt hit sophomore Devante Turner for the two-point conversion, sending UCM into the half leading 21-7.
Coming out of the break, Central Missouri needed just two plays to widen its lead. Hunt found Parker for a 31-yard gain then Turner finished off the drive with a 39-yard burst up the sideline for a 28-7 Mule lead just 32 seconds into the second half.
A three and out forced by the Mule defense — Central Missouri held Nebraska-Kearney to 5 of 13 on third down — put the ball back in the hands of the UCM offense.
With Bradley at the helm, the Mules drove 55 yards in 10 plays, finished off on a circus catch by Parker. The senior trapped the pass against the UNK defender’s helmet before shifting the ball into his grasp.
Parker finished with nine receptions for 146 yards and three scores, in his second game since being helped off the field in a neck brace in week six against Central Oklahoma. Parker missed week seven against Emporia State then had two catches against Pittsburg State.
“He is playing beat up,” Svoboda said. “I am proud of that kid. He is a kid that has some tribulations along the way and has been beat up and he could probably just cash it in. … That is a kid that showed me a lot today. I know he was hurting. I can’t give him a enough praise.”
Nebraska-Kearney (4-5) answered Central Missouri’s 28-unanswered points with a four touchdown swing of its own.
A 79-yard kickoff return by Jackson on the ensuring kickoff following Parker’s touchdown set the Lopers up for a 3-play, 11-yard drive ending in a Dayton Sealy six-yard run.
Jackson struck for his second big-play in a two minute span, bobbling, then bringing in a McGinnis pass for a 91-yard catch-and-run score to trim the Mules lead down to 35-21 at the 5:36 mark in the third quarter.
Nebraska-Kearney was granted another short field following a 24-yard punt return by Luke Quinn to the UCM 30.
David Goodwin brought the Lopers within a score, 35-28, with a one-yard run to finish off the six-play drive.
UNK knotted the game up with a 13-play, 82-yard drive that ate up 5:35 of the fourth quarter with Quinn punching it in from two-yards out.
UCM punted on its second to last drive of the night, setting up Bell’s fumble recovery.
In split duty, Hunt and Bradley both threw two touchdowns. Hunt was 10 of 17 through the air for 179 yards. Bradley was 8 of 12 for 73 yards while also running for 39 yards and score.
“I know they can both play better,” Svoboda said.
Turner was the Mules leading rusher with 77 yards and a score.
Defensively, Central Missouri held UNK to 221 yards, 46 yards below its season average. John Embrey led the Mules with 11 tackles and a sack. Bell added 10 tackles.
Central Missouri will travel to Lindenwood for a 1 p.m. kickoff Saturday, Nov. 3. The Lions (3-6) lost 27-14 to Fort Hays State in week nine.