Gorillas overcome 21-0 deficit in first-round win

Photo by Carla Wehmeyer, Pittsburg State Athletics
By: Brian Pommier for TeamKong.com
Nov 22, 2014

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It’s hard to imagine a much worse start to Saturday’s NCAA Division II first-round playoff game for the Pittsburg State Gorillas. Likewise, it’s harder to imagine a much worse ending to that game for the Harding Bisons, who watched the Gorillas overcome a 21-0 deficit en route to a 59-42 victory.
The come-from-behind romp -- not a term normally used to describe a football game -- means the Gorillas will travel north to face Minnesota State-Mankato at 1 p.m. Saturday.

Big plays -- no, huge plays -- fueled the Bisons’ 21-0 start. In fact, Harding racked up 156 yards on just three scoring plays to put the Gorillas in a huge hole. Even more problematic, it gave the Bisons the idea that they belonged in the playoffs. Those three touchdowns were the first points Harding had scored in the playoffs. Ever.

“There was some question when we began the playoffs as to whether we belonged in the national playoffs,” Harding head coach Ron Huckabee said. “I think we answered that today. Obviously, we were ready to play. We got off to a tremendous start.”

Midway through the first quarter, Alapeti Magalei capped a five-play, 61-yard drive with a 25-yard run up the middle to put Harding on the board. Less than two minutes later, Romo Westbrook gashed the middle of the PSU defense for a 70-yard touchdown sprint. Then, midway through the second quarter, Westbrook busted through the line again, this time for an 81-yard touchdown run.

Three plays. All up the middle. A 21-0 lead.

“They are really good at adjusting things and spreading you out a little farther than you’re used to, maybe,” PSU head coach Tim Beck said. “They were able to pop a couple on us. It was kind of a chess match and we went back-and-forth on some adjustments. They are known for making some really nice schematic changes.”

Meanwhile, the Gorillas’ offense was in disarray. Pitt State quarterback Anthony Abenoja was intercepted on a tipped ball that ended the Gorillas’ first possession after six plays and 24 yards. The next five PSU drives ended in punts -- four of those were three-and outs -- and only amassed 26 yards.

But all of a sudden, the offense started clicking.

After a 31-yard pass from Abenoja to receiver Marquise Cushon put the Gorillas deep in Harding territory, Abenoja snaked his way through the Bisons defense and into the end zone to give Pitt State life.

Two plays into the Bisons’ next drive, Alapeti Magalei fumbled and Spencer Brown recovered at the Harding 31 to set the Gorillas up to cut deeper into the HU lead.

Abenoja capped that possession with a nine-yard dart to Austin Panko, who caught his first three touchdowns of the season on Saturday.
The time on the sidelines proved beneficial for the PSU defense, as they finally had time to adjust to what Harding had done on those three big plays.

The Gorillas forced a three-and-out on Harding’s next possession and got the ball back with 1:06 left before halftime.

After masterfully working the clock with a combination of spiking the ball and taking advantage of first downs that stopped the clock, Abenoja threw a 19-yard strike on a fade pattern to Gavin Lutman for the game-tying score just ticks before halftime.

All of a sudden, it was a brand new ballgame.

“Last night, at the team meeting, I told our guys that no matter what, no matter how much we were down, we refuse to lose,” Pittsburg State senior quarterback Anthony Abenoja said. “We got down three scores, sure, but I knew we could score quickly.”

And after it appeared that the game was going to be a blowout early, the Gorillas started to make it a blowout the other way in the third quarter.
Abenoja engineered an 11-play, 78-yard scoring play to put the Gorillas up 28-21, and just three plays later, Heath Wilson recovered a fumble at the Harding 31.

This time, it only took one play for PSU to score, as offensive coordinator Steve Rampy dialed up some trickery. The Gorillas ran a double reverse, and then Bradley Argabright stopped and threw a 31-yard TD pass to Panko for a 14-point lead.

When he was asked what he thought when the play was called, Panko laughed and said, “I had a big smile on my face when I was walking out there. I knew what was coming, and I was pretty excited.”

Harding picked up a first down on its next possession thanks to a pass interference penalty, but another fumble recovery -- this one by Colby Hall -- put the Gorillas in business at the Harding 38.

A 38-yard field goal from Conner Frazell made it 38-21 and the 7,270 fans at Carnie Smith Stadium were finally breathing easy.

That, however, was perhaps premature.

Harding had scored the first 21 points of the game. Pitt State had scored the next 38 unanswered.

And now, a track meet was about to break out.

Donatella Luckett took a swing pass 50 yards for a touchdown -- the Bisons’ fourth big-play touchdown -- to cut the Gorilla lead to 10.
Pitt State answered with an 11-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 14-yard run by Michael Rose. But on the second play of the ensuing drive, Luckett was all alone for an 82-yard touchdown pass.

Back came PSU, with a 48-yard scoring drive ending with a nine-yard TD pass to Kyle Swartz. On Harding’s first play of the next drive, Wilson picked up his second fumble, and this time he returned it 28 yards for a touchdown to put the Gorillas up 52-35.

Harding added a controversial touchdown pass inside the last minute.

The Gorillas will now head to Minnesota on Saturday. The winner of that game will face the winner of Minnesota-Duluth vs. Ouachita Baptist. Duluth eliminated Northwest Missouri State -- the only other MIAA team in the playoffs -- on Saturday with a touchdown inside the last minute to take a 25-21 win.

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