Kearney, Neb. – Redshirt freshman Steve Worthing threw three touchdown passes and senior linebacker Tyke Kozeal returned an interception for a score with 1:44 left to help Nebraska-Kearney beat Central Oklahoma, 47-32, Saturday afternoon at Ron & Carol Cope Stadium at Foster Field.
The win snaps a 17-game losing streak. UNK’s last victory came at home on November 15, 2014, over Emporia State, 42-40. This also marks Josh Lamberson’s first victory as a head coach.
“Our team has battled back through so much adversity and fought threw a lot of ups and downs. It would’ve been real easy when things started to go bad in the second half to let it slide way. Our guys drew a line in the sand and said not today. They came together as a team and made some plays,” said Lamberson.
It seemed things were almost sewn up for UNK after senior defensive back Antwan Hadley (Lake Wales, Fla.) returned a pick 96 yards for a score with 4:17 left in the third quarter. That marked Hadley’s third career pick six and made it 40-17 Lopers. At the half, UNK was up 27-10.
However, behind 2014 MIAA Freshman of the Year Chas Stallard, UCO came back. Relieving T.J. Eckert in the second quarter, Stallard tossed TD passes of six and 50 yards to senior receiver Connor Polley in a 1:20 span in the fourth quarter. After a two-point conversion, it was suddenly 40-32 with six minutes left
UNK responded with a seven-play, 33-yard drive that featured five rushes by sophomore back Luke Quinn (Chandler, Ariz.). While UCO got the ball back, senior punter Payton Fluckey (Springfield) pinned them at their own 10-yard line with 2:32 left and no timeouts.
UCO moved just one yard on the next three plays. On fourth down, Stallard tried to throw the ball down the middle of the field but Kozeal (Sargent) had other ideas. His fifth career INT went 16 yards for a score, his second TD as a Loper.
“It’s a feeling I haven’t experienced in a long time. Its great feeling and it was awesome seeing the locker room after the game. Just seeing the guys so happy. That’s the greatest thing for me, seeing my teammates so excited,” said Kozeal. “He (Stallard) threw it right at me; hit me right in the numbers. If I would’ve taken a knee, it would’ve been a smarter decision. But all I could see was that end zone.”
While Stallard went 14 of 24 for 282 yards and four TD’s, and rushed 13 times for 97 yards, he threw four INT’s. Right after Hadley’s pick, junior safety George Brown (University City, Mo.) picked Stallard off in the Loper end zone.
On the year, Eckert and Stallard have combined to throw 12 interceptions, six coming back for TD’s. UNK also forced two fumbles today, leading to two field goals, to have an unprecedented plus six turnover margin.
UCO ran 17 more plays than UNK and totaled 138 more yards, 551-413. Their final nine drives amassed 470 yards with eight ending either in a TD or INT. UNK came in with two picks on the season.
“We got them to third down and let them off the hook a couple of times in the second half. Offensively, we probably didn’t play as well as we would’ve liked. There’s that balance of being aggressive and running the football to get the clock going,” said Lamberson.
Besides Stallard, Polley had seven catches for 165 yards and three TD’s with junior backer Hank Humphers recording 13 tackles.
For UNK, Kozeal made a game-high 15 stops (nine solo), pushing his career total to 541, recovered a fumble in the first half and forced a fumble on the game’s final play.
Also, true freshman end Hinwa Allieu (Gaithersburg, Md.) had seven tackles, including one of UNK’s three sacks, with redshirt freshman backer Sal Silvio (Kansas City) having two TFL’s and a forced fumble.
Offensively for the Lopers, Worthing went 15 of 23 for a season-best 280 yards and three TD’s. Junior receiver Malcolm Moore (Excelsior, Minn.) was his favorite target, having six grabs for a season-best 110 yards and a score.
Quinn got hot late to tally 97 rushing yards on 19 carries. He also caught a 65-yard TD pass in the first quarter to put UNK up for good.
“All week we harped on winning the turnover battle and converting on big plays. On offense, we took care of the football and on defense we created tons of turnovers,” said Worthing. “Everyone was pumped up (at halftime). We were ready to get a win.”
Finally, junior Brendan Wentling (Grand Island H.S.) had another big day kicking the football. He had field goals of 40 and 51 yards and five touchbacks on nine kickoffs.
UNK heads to Northeastern State next Saturday. The RiverHawks lost 74-29 at No. 1 ranked NW Missouri State today.