HAMMOND, La. – The Southeastern Louisiana-McNeese State football rivalry has produced numerous dramatic moments in recent years, but none wilder than Saturday night's finish in Strawberry Stadium.
Senior Brandon Acker hauled in an 82-yard touchdown pass from senior Justin Alo with eight seconds remaining to give the Lions a 31-24 victory over No. 19/20 McNeese in Southland Conference action.
After taking over at their 15-yard line with less than a minute left, Southeastern seemed to be ready to take a 24-24 game into overtime, but Alo had other ideas. Seeing Acker in one-on-one coverage versus McNeese's Jermaine Antoine, Alo took a shot down the right sideline.
The pass was slightly under thrown and it looked as if Antoine had a shot at an interception. The ball tipped off Antoine's fingertips and found its way into Acker's hand just past midfield. The Hattiesburg, Mississippi native broke a pair of tackles and raced into the end zone to give Southeastern the lead.
McNeese had one last gasp at a Hail Mary as time expired. Junior Torrance Mosley knocked away Cowboy quarterback James Tabary's pass away to give the Lions its fourth win over its in-state conference rivals in the past five years and their first victory over a ranked opponent since a 28-9 win over then-No. 11 McNeese on Nov. 15, 2014.
The Lions rallied from a 14-7 halftime deficit by outscoring the Cowboys, 24-7, in the second half. All three of Alo's touchdown passes came after the break as the Lions bounced back from last Saturday's 38-14 loss to Lamar in a convincing manner.
"This was obviously a huge win for our program," Southeastern head coach Ron Roberts said. "We made some big mistakes, especially in the first half, but the difference in this game is that we did things to overcome those mistakes. We made some huge plays on both sides of the ball, with none bigger than the one by Brandon Acker."
Alo threw for a career-high 339 yards and three touchdowns on 17-of-37 passing, while also throwing one interception. Alo's passing yardage total was the most by a Lion quarterback during Roberts' five-year tenure and the highest total since former Lion Brian Young threw for 409 yards versus Central Arkansas on Oct. 29, 2011. The Carson, California native is the first Lion to throw for over 300 yards since Bryan Bennett threw for 311 versus Jacksonville in the 2014 season opener.
Alo's favorite target continues to be Acker, whose game winner capped a five-catch, 168-yard performance in Saturday's victory. Acker's career-high yardage total was the eighth-highest in school history and the most for a Lion since Devante Scott totaled 196 yards versus Nicholls on Nov. 20, 2014. Senior Juwaan Rogers and freshman Bransen Schwebel each also caught touchdowns for the Lions.
The Lion defense had perhaps its best night of 2016, forcing McNeese into three turnovers. SLU was bolstered by the return of junior Sione Teuhema after a three-game absence. The Keller, Texas native finished with 10 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in his first appearance since the season opener.
Mosley and junior Max Lyons shared the team lead for SLU with 11 tackles each. Lyons and junior Javon Tillman each recovered fumbles, while senior Tre' Bennett intercepted a Tabary pass.
Tabary finished with 196 yards, two touchdowns and one interception on 25-of-41 passing. Ryan Ross led the Cowboys with 83 yards rushing on 13 carries.
The two teams traded three-and-outs on the opening possessions of the game. Forced into its second straight punt, McNeese saw punter Michael Mack drop the snap inside the five-yard line. The loose ball rolled into the end zone and Lyons fell on it for a 7-0 SLU lead with 10:33 left in the opening quarter.
Neither offense could get on track until McNeese took advantage of a Lion mistake to even the score. After Southeastern stopped the Cowboys on a fourth down to get the ball back, MSU defensive end Jammerio Gross stripped sophomore Julius Maracalin to give the Cowboys the ball at the Lion 34-yard line.
Nine plays later, Tabary found a wide open Nick Edwards from 11 yards out on the first play of the second quarter to knot the score at 7-7.
Southeastern was poised to answer on the ensuing possession, methodically marching into the Cowboy red zone. On the drive's 12th play, however, senior Rasheed Harrell and freshman Jacq'co Price miscommunicated on a reverse and Gross fell on the loose ball to end the Lion scoring threat.
With the momentum on their side, the Cowboys took the lead. Dylan Long capped a seven-play, 71-yard scoring march with a four-yard touchdown catch to give the Cowboys a 14-7 advantage with 6:41 remaining in the opening half.
The Lions tried to cut into the lead in the half's final minute. SLU drove into McNeese territory, but junior Dillon Burkhard's 47-yard field goal attempt missed wide right to keep Southeastern down a score heading into the break.
Southeastern came out of the locker room a different team in the third quarter. On the first drive of the half, it took the Lions just three plays to cover 75 yards and tie the score. Alo found Rogers with a pass over the middle and the Amite, Louisiana native bulled in from 36 yards out to even the ledger at 14-14 with 13:55 left in the third quarter. The touchdown for Rogers was his first since 2013.
On McNeese's next drive, Bennett intercepted a Tabary pass and advanced it to the Cowboy 25-yard line to set the Lions up in scoring territory. Three plays later, Schwebel made a leaping grab from 17 yards out to give Southeastern a 21-14 lead with 10:51 left in the third period. Schwebel's score marked the first collegiate catch for the Amite, Louisiana native and Oak Forest Academy alum.
The nationally-ranked Cowboys pulled closer on their ensuing possession, as a 54-yard Ryan Ross run set up a 30-yard field goal by Gunnar Raborn to cut the lead to 21-17 with 9:22 left in the third quarter.
Southeastern answered right back on its next drive. A tough 22-yard catch in traffic by freshman Javon Conner highlighted a 10-play, 52-yard scoring drive. Sophomore Jonathan Tatum capped the drive with a 41-yard field goal to extend the SLU advantage to 24-17 with 5:34 left in the third quarter.
The Lions looked poised to add to the advantage after Teuhema knocked the ball away from Ryan Ross and Tillman recovered it at the Cowboy 40-yard line. However, four straight penalties cost the Lions 35 yards and ended a promising threat.
Going into the fourth quarter, McNeese had made its way into Southeastern territory. However on a fourth-and-four, Tabary's pass to Kylon Highshaw was trapped, giving the Lions the ball back. For the game, the Cowboys were 0-for-4 on fourth down tries.
After a Southeastern punt, McNeese finally tied the score after a nine-play, 80-yard drive. On the drive's final play, Lawayne Ross was initially stopped at the line of scrimmage, but bounced outside and dove in to cap a 19-yard run, knotting the game at 24-24 with 7:42 left to play.
Southeastern went three-and-out on the ensuing drive and Parker Orgeron returned a 55-yard punt by freshman Ivy Wall 15 yards to the Lion 45-yard line. However, Southeastern made another fourth down stop, as senior Jon Taylor led a host of Lions in stopping Long short and giving the Lions the ball back.
However, Southeastern could still not get anything going offensively and punted back to McNeese with just under three minutes remaining. The Cowboys worked it into SLU territory, but Southeastern forced a punt with less than a minute remaining.
After a short run by senior Kaelyn Henderson started the drive, it appeared the Lions were content to go for overtime before Alo found Acker for the game-winning score – the first game-winning touchdown pass in the final minute for the Lions since Bennett found Jeff Smiley from one yard out with 49 seconds left in a 30-29 win over Sam Houston State in the second round of the NCAA FCS playoffs on Dec. 7, 2013.
Southeastern will now head back on the road, traveling to Stephen F. Austin for a 3 p.m. contest on Oct. 15. The game will be televised on ESPN3 and will be broadcast on the Southeastern Sports Radio Network.
Where Lions fans come to LION UP!
BACK TO BACK SOUTHLAND CONFERENCE CHAMPIONS! 2013, 2014.
Join us on Facebook and keep up to date with all the news