Kearney, Neb. – Sophomore running back Thomas Russell carried the ball 39 times for a career-high 178 yards and two touchdowns to help Nebraska Kearney grind out a 16-6 win over Missouri Southern State Saturday evening in Joplin.
The Lopers (2-3) earn its first-ever MIAA August or September road win and also stop a three-game losing streak to the Lions (0-5). UNK’s last victory over MSSU came back in 1988 when both schools were members of the CSIC (Central States Intercollegiate Conference).
Kearney dominated the action all day long but some red zone struggles kept MSSU in it until the end. UNK held the ball for 37 minutes and outgained the Lions 352-288 with most of the Lions production coming in the fourth quarter behind backup quarterback TJ Fleeton.
Russell (Millard West) had two three-yard scoring runs, the first coming with 4:04 left in the half and the other coming with 9:14 left in the game. Senior Brendan Wentling (Grand Island) started the scoring with a 21-yard field at the 4:43 mark of the first quarter.
UNK could’ve salted away things much earlier but had two drives stall at the MSSU 11 and 18 yard lines. Instead of picking up points, both field goals were no good, as was the second point after attempt. On the PAT, junior defensive end Tye Spies (Mullen) likely saved two points when he made a diving tackle.
Ahead 9-0 to start the fourth quarter, the Loper defense forced MSSU to punt from near midfield. However, UNK fumbled the punt and the Lions recovered the loose ball at the line 21-yard. Soon after, Fleeton threw a 16-yard completion to back Shemar Coleman to make it first and goal from the five. It was Kearney’s turn to regain the momentum as the defense stuffed big back Nicholas Roller on third and fourth down.
With 99.5 yards to go, UNK picked up a first down and then sophomore QB Steve Worthing (Elkhorn South) found junior tight end Alex Harms (North Platte) at the Loper 35-yard line. He rumbled all the way to MSSU 17-yard line, a 76-yard gain that is UNK’s longest offensive play of the season. Three plays later, Russell scored.
MSSU responded with its best drive of the day, a 13-play, 69-yard march that was greatly helped by a controversial post-play penalty on an incomplete pass on 3rd & 10 from the Loper 18-yard line. Instead of fourth down, MSSU started first and goal from the nine and Fleeton ran in from five yards out to complete the day’s scoring. Entering with 9:17 left to play in the third quarter, he finished 10 of 21 for 94 yards.
Sophomore receiver Austan Daniels (Omaha Burke) recovered the ensuing onside kick and then UNK ran 3:15 off the clock to complete the win. Worthing managed to get MSSU to jump offside on fourth and one from the Lion 36-yard line.
Overall, Russell was seven carries from tying the UNK record, set by all-time leading rusher Mike Miller in a 2002 win over Fort Lewis (Colo). Russell’s 39 totes does tie him with Nolan Beyer (1992/Northern State) for fourth most in Loper lore. Losing just two yards all day, his long run covered 24 yards and Russell now has 106 carries for 401 yards and three TD’s on the season.
UNK finished with a season-best 230 rushing yards while MSSU was held to 68. This marks the fifth straight week a Loper opponent has failed to crack the Century mark, the longest streak since 2008.
In the air, Worthing was 6 of 16 for 122 yards. He completed passes to five teammates with Daniels having two for 14 yards.
The Loper defense frustrated MSSU starting signal caller Dante Vandeven, the 2015 Freshman of the Year in the Ohio Valley Conference. He was 12 of 20 for 126 yards and two interceptions before being pulled. Seeing a few of his passes dropped, he was picked off by senior safety George Brown (St. Louis) and sophomore inside backer Sal Silvio (Kansas City).
Silvio and fellow inside backer Ty Botsford (Sussex, Wisc.) combined to make 18 tackles with sophomore outside backer Zach Sullivan (Millard West) registering five. He also had one of UNK’s two sacks, pushing the season total to 16.
Besides Fleeton’s late heroics, MSSU saw Coleman finish with 90 all-purpose yards and 6-7 receiver Josiah Bennett have six catches for 53 yards. Linebacker Akel Beard had a game-high 15 tackles on defense.
UNK hosts nationally-ranked Central Missouri (3-2) next Saturday at Ron & Carol Cope Stadium at Foster Field. The Mules almost ended Northwest Missouri State’s 34-game winning streak today at Arrowhead Stadium in K.C. but fell 24-20 in the closing seconds. UCM moved ahead with 34 seconds left but the ‘Cats responded with a quick strike 27 seconds later to win it. Click here to listen the podcast of the game.