Heading into the day, it was no secret that Jacob Park was a fairly pivotal piece to the Missouri Southern offense.
That became more evident once the starting quarterback was sidelined with a game-ending injury to his throwing arm early in the second quarter on Saturday. The Lions mostly sputtered on offense the rest of the way as MIAA foe Emporia State pulled away for a 29-6 victory on Senior Day at Fred G. Hughes Stadium.
Southern (2-8) suffered three turnovers and punted 13 times — a single-game school record.
“You could definitely say Jacob got hurt and that’s why we weren’t very explosive, and that’s true,” MSSU coach Jeff Sims said. “But as a coach, I have to kind of see things two steps ahead of everyone else. What we didn’t do was prepare (backup quarterbacks Sean Kelly and Dwayne Lawson) well enough. I don’t think it’s a surprise to us that somebody can get hurt playing football. So that’s why I think we didn’t do a good job of preparing those guys.”
MSSU trailed the Hornets (3-7) 3-0 when Park was sacked and forced to exit the game with an apparent injury to his right elbow. Lawson and Kelly split time in the backfield the rest of the way and combined to throw for 187 yards on 11-of-32 accuracy with three interceptions.
Sims said after the game that Park was “close to being able to return” at the start of the second half before he and the training staff ultimately decided against it. His status for next week’s season finale at Pittsburg State is unknown.
The Lions went scoreless in their first 12 offensive drives before Kelly connected with Keandre Bledsoe for a 54-yard touchdown pass to trim the ESU lead to 22-6 with 14:46 remaining in the fourth quarter.
“When we got that touchdown, I’m like, ‘Hey, see how fast that can happen? Now we’re down two touches. Let’s go out here and get one more and get back into this,’ “ Sims said. “You know, we’ve been explosive all year. And I thought that was a great throw by Sean. … And you can’t tell me that Keandre Bledsoe isn’t one of the best players in this league. He’s done a tremendous job and he’s fought and worked.”
Bledsoe finished with 84 yards on three catches. His season total went up to 35 receptions, which is a single-season record for Missouri Southern tight ends.
“To come here and set a single-season record, it feels good,” Bledsoe said. “I don’t even know how to explain it.”
Southern had five more drives after it cut the deficit to 16 points early in the fourth quarter, but the Lions came up empty-handed on each with three punts and two interceptions.
The Hornets put the finishing touches on their triumph with a 23-yard touchdown pass from Braden Gleason to Cole Schumacher with 3:24 remaining.
Gleason threw for 222 yards and two touchdowns on 14-of-34 passing. He also rushed for 81 yards on 12 attempts, while running back Carlos Grace led ESU with 176 yards rushing and one touchdown on 23 attempts.
Former Afton High School standout Will Amos led Emporia State in receiving with 63 yards on five catches. The true freshman hauled in a 42-yard touchdown pass to give his team a 9-0 lead with 2:21 left in the second quarter.
The Southern defense surrendered 536 yards and generated three turnovers. Colton Winder and David Rose logged one interception apiece while Alex Alvarado had one fumble recovery.
Winder, a true freshman and Carthage product, led Southern in tackles with 16.
“Our defense played so much better than they have, and they continue to grow and get better,” Sims said.
Southern takes on the Gorillas (5-5) next Saturday at 1 in Pittsburg.