PITTSBURG, Kan. — The Pittsburg State Gorillas were 21 yards away from gifting head coach Brian Wright quite the comeback story in his debut.
But four straight incomplete passes resulted in a turnover on downs with 22 seconds left in the fourth quarter, halting a late PSU rally as the Nebraska-Kearney Lopers escaped with a 31-26 win in a nonconference clash Saturday afternoon at Carnie Smith Stadium.
The Gorillas trailed by as many as 11 points in the final quarter before a 31-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Mak Sexton to redshirt freshman wide receiver Christian Carter trimmed the deficit to five points with 1:47 remaining.
Following a failed onside kick attempt, the Gorillas were given life as the Lopers fumbled on the first play of their drive and gave PSU possession at its 40-yard line. The Gorillas then marched 29 yards in nine plays to make it to the Lopers’ 21, but UNK buckled down defensively from there to clinch its first win over Pittsburg State in program history in the NCAA Division II ranks.
Saturday’s game marked the first of five for PSU in a COVID-19 abbreviated season. It was also Wright’s first game as the Gorillas’ head coach after he spent the previous four years as offensive coordinator at Toledo.
“I found out in the last six to eight weeks how resilient our team is and what kind of group we have,” Wright said. “Now we’re going to find out how we lead after losing a football game and having some more adversity. ”
The Gorillas were down nine players and two coaches due to positive COVID-19 tests within the football team.
Wright, however, said the difference in the ball game came down to PSU being outperformed by Nebraska-Kearney in all three phases of the game.
“Our guys wanted to come out and win, and we didn’t get that done,” he said. “Offensive, defensive and kicking game, we just had way too many mistakes. You can’t make those kinds of mistakes and beat anybody.”
Perhaps the costliest of mistakes came midway through the fourth quarter when a snap on a punt attempt was mishandled and resulted in a 13-yard loss and turnover on downs. The Lopers took over at the PSU 17 and scored five plays later on a one-yard touchdown run by sophomore quarterback TJ Davis, giving UNK its largest lead at 31-20 with 6:32 to go.
Davis was the top contributor for the UNK offense that generated 441 total yards. He finished with four touchdown runs, as well as 91 yards on 21 rushes and 154 yards on 5-of-10 passing.
“We were not really doing a great enough job of containing him,” Wright said. “We gave up too many perimeter plays out there early on, but I think we started to do a better job of defending that (in the second half).”
The Lopers never trailed in the second half and took their first lead late in the second quarter when Davis capped a 16-play, 95-yard drive with a four-yard touchdown run that put his team up 10-7 with 18 seconds left before halftime. The scoring drive milked nearly seven minutes off the clock.
PSU drew first blood in the first quarter when running back Tyler Adkins reached paydirt on a two-yard carry to give the Gorillas a 7-0 lead. But the Lopers went on to score 17 straight points before the Gorillas scored again on a 72-yard touchdown pass from Sexton to redshirt freshman Dylan White, a Pittsburg High School product, at the 11:25-mark of the third quarter.
The two teams exchanged touchdowns early in the fourth quarter — UNK scoring on a short TD run by Davis and PSU on a 19-yard TD pass from Sexton to senior transfer Jalen Martin — to make it 24-20 Lopers with 11:40 to go.
Sexton completed 25-of-46 passes for 398 yards and three touchdowns. The freshmen receiver duo of Carter and White were Sexton’s favorite targets, with Carter totaling 153 yards on eight catches and White totaling 105 yards on five catches. Martin hauled in seven catches for 58 yards.
“I’m excited because we have some young guys stepping up and some transfers stepping up,” Sexton said. “We were obviously missing some guys today, but I’m really excited with the squad we have.”
Adkins led the Gorillas in rushing with 71 yards on 15 attempts.
PSU totaled 530 yards of offense despite UNK owning a 13-minute advantage in time of possession.