By Ryan Atkinson
Globe Sports Writer
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. —
God, or perhaps Jay Thomas, answers prayers.
Missouri Southern sophomore defensive end Ryon Phillips was on the sideline as the Lincoln Blue Tigers — seeking their first league win since rejoining the MIAA last season — threatened to tie the game with less than a minute remaining Saturday afternoon.
“I just kept praying ‘God, put me in. God, put me in,’ ” Phillips said.
Thomas, Missouri Southern’s defensive coordinator, made the call to change packages and put Phillips on the field with three seconds remaining and the Blue Tigers with one last chance from the MSSU 27-yard line.
Phillips, in turn, blindsided Lincoln quarterback Lewis Larson for a game-ending sack, preserving MSSU’s sloppy 21-14 win at Dwight T. Reed Stadium.
“I went around the outside and saw Brandon Williams come around the outside on the left,” Phillips said of the game-ending play. “I got around the tackle … and kept thinking ‘run through, run through.’ And I guess that’s what ended up happening.”
The win moves the Lions to 3-0 overall and in the MIAA, their first 3-0 start overall since 2006 and their first 3-0 start in league play since 1996.
“That’s all we care about,” MSSU quarterback Kellen Cox said. “We’ve had three close games and we’re building character. This isn’t exactly how we wanted to play today. I didn’t play as well as I should have … but this is making us better and the important thing is we got the win.”
The win, of course, is the only thing that matters when the game goes final.
But the Lions left Jefferson City unhappy with their execution, especially on offense.
MSSU had five turnovers and also gave up the ball on downs — all in the first half — and didn’t score a point in the second half, managing just 21 points against a Lincoln team that had already allowed 49 (to Lindenwood) and 42 (Truman State).
“You can say we came out flat, or this was a grass field and some of our guys have never played on a grass field … you can come up with a ton of excuses,” MSSU coach Daryl Daye said. “But the bottom line is, we didn’t execute like we’re capable of doing. We turn it over six times in a half … you can’t do that.”
The Lions muffed a pair of punts and had a turnover on downs in the first half.
The remaining three turnovers came on Cox interceptions — one tipped — but the senior receiver-turned-quarterback made up for it with three rushing touchdowns, including a 62-yard sprint on an option keeper that put MSSU up 7-0 early in the first quarter.
He had two more in the second quarter, including a 1-yard plunge with just 29 seconds left in the half that gave the Lions a 21-7 lead.
But Lincoln needed just two plays — both passes from Larson to Devoyius Mark, the second going for a 50-yard score — to pull within 21-14 before the half ended.
“Defensively, we game up two big plays,” Phillips said, referring to the 50-yarder and Andre Borney’s 33-yard touchdown pass to Keenan Smith in the first quarter. “Take those two plays away and take the two muffed punts away and I think this is a different game
“But it wasn’t and we have a lot of things to fix. And we’re looking forward to fixing them.”
The Lions had just four possessions in the second half. The first three ended with punts. The final possession proved the be fruitless on the scoreboard — Lincoln blocked Dallas Herndon’s 34-yard field goal attempt — but it may have been what saved the game.
Cox, who finished with 133 yards on 25 carries, ran the ball seven times on an 18-play drive — including a pair of third-down conversions — that ran the clock from 9:31 all the way to 28 seconds left. That left Lincoln with time for just a handful of heaves in its attempt to move downfield after the blocked field goal.
“That was huge,” Cox said. “That’s our game, running the clock, running the ball. We really established the fullback again and got back to Southern football and ran some time off. It was a great job by our offense and offensive line.”
MSSU held the Blue Tigers to 257 yards of offense, including just 17 on the ground, making the 21 first-half points hold up.
Larson, who split time with starter Jacob Morris, was 15-for-28 for 192 yards and a touchdown for Lincoln.
Cox finished 4-for-10 for 52 yards in addition to his 133 rushing yards. Travis Hurd carried the ball seven times for 55 yards while Ne’Ronte Threatt had 49 yards on 10 carries.
The Lions gained 295 yards rushing on 61 carries, an average of 4.8 yards per rush.
“We had a lot of opportunities to take the game over but we didn’t,” Daye said. “But the kids got it done. They’re 3-0. That’s a credit to them. They’re learning how to win.”