By Ryan Atkinson
Globe Sports Writer
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
After four proverbial cakewalks to open the season, the Pittsburg State Gorillas knew this was coming.
They knew the Central Missouri Mules would walk into Carnie Smith Stadium on Saturday and present the Gorillas with their first real test of the season.
It wasn’t always pretty, but the Gorillas passed.
The top-ranked Gorillas blew an early two-touchdown lead before scoring 13 unanswered fourth-quarter points for a 30-21 win over the Mules before 8.849 fans.
“We have heart. We came together as a family,” said senior defensive end Gus Toca, who had one of Pitt State’s six sacks. “A lot of people said we hadn’t been tested until today. We responded very well.”
Especially in the fourth quarter.
After Pitt State (5-0, 5-0 MIAA) scored the game’s first 14 points the Mules (4-2, 4-2) outscored the Gorillas 21-3 and took a 21-17 lead on quarterback Colter Smith’s one-yard plunge on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Three plays later on third-and-12 from the PSU 3, Anthony Abenoja — who had struggled with his accuracy throughout the day — threw a perfectly-placed pass to a well-covered John Brown for a 47-yard gain.
Jason Spradling then rambled for 15 of his game-high 134 rushing yards, setting up Mandel Dixon’s one-yard plunge that made it 23-21 after Conner Frazell — who missed a 17-yard field goal in waning seconds of the first half — shanked the extra point.
The Mules gained a first down on the ensuing drive before penalties and both the Pitt State crowd and defense derailed things.
Two false starts, an offensive pass interference and a sack by Joe Uzzel led to the Mules punting on fourth-and-42 from their 20.
“I think the crowd, again, helped us out a lot,” Pitt State coach Tim Beck said. “It’s nice to have that homefield advantage. It’s nice to hear them get really, really loud at times.”
Abenoja — who finished 23-for-38 for 336 yards — then dissected the UCM defense, hitting Luke Rampy for 39 yards before Brown made a spectacular leaping catch for 23 yards to set up Brady Letchworth catching a two-yard, play-action pass for a touchdown to make it 30-21 with 6:20 remaining.
“Our coaches called the right plays and put us in the right position to succeed,” said Rampy, who had a career-high 144 yards on nine catches, second only to Brown’s 157 yards on nine catches. “When you go out there and have two receivers like (Andrew) Castaneda and John Brown, the secondary is going to be on their toes, not wanting to get beat. So we look for underneath stuff and not try to get the home run ball every play.”
Despite a Brown fumble at the Mule 2-yard line midway through the first quarter, the Gorillas took a 14-0 lead after an Abenoja-to-Brown 13-yard score and Trezz Tillman’s one-yard run that came after the Gorillas kept their drive alive when Castaneda — lined up to punt on fourth down — realized the Mules were not covering Brown and promptly hit him for a 37-yard gain.
But the Mules — facing a third-and-10 from their 2 — reeled off 90 yards on back-to-back plays to set up Smith’s 12-yard touchdown.
Central then tied it early in the third quarter when LaVance Taylor scored from 15 yards out after another key third-and-10 conversion by the scrambling Smith. That tied it at 14.
“He’s so big, it doesn’t look like he’s going to move very much,” Pit State linebacker Nate Dreiling said. “And once you get to him, he has a little shake to him. You have to hit him with your whole body.”
The Gorillas got a stop on Central’s next drive when on third-and-5 from the Mule 31, a blitzing Tyler Disney, despite being knocked down while leaping over a block, was able to sack Smith for a 10-yard loss.
Spradling reeled off a 40-yard run to set up Frazell’s 32-yard field goal that gave the Gorillas a 17-14 lead.
“I don’t remember much of it, it happened so fast,” Disney said of the key sack, “You get knocked down, you get back up, that’s how football is played. The quarterback happened to be there so I put my arms around him and tackled him.”