This is the hard way to win a football game.
Turn the ball over on your first possession. Give up huge plays and look lost on defense. Punt a lot. Trail by three touchdowns midway through the second quarter.
Pittsburg State did all that on Saturday in its NCAA Division II playoff opener against Harding (Ark.) before rallying for a 59-42 win. The Gorillas advanced to play at No. 1 Minnesota State-Mankato next Saturday.
“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.”
Harding, 9-2, shocked the Gorillas with an early onslaught. After Abenoja was intercepted by Darious Lane on Pittsburg State’s first possession, Alapeti Magalei put the Bison up 7-0 on a 25-yard touchdown run.
Romo Westbrook scored on touchdown runs of 70 and 81 yards for a 21-0 lead with 7:42 left in the second quarter.
“The holes just opened up, huge, and I was hitting them just right,” Westbrook said. “We had all the momentum.”
Abenoja, the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association offensive player of the year, swiped that momentum right back. He started things off with a 9-yard touchdown run for the Gorillas’ first score with 5:31 left in the second quarter, then connected with Austin Panko for a 9-yard touchdown pass after the Gorillas, 11-1, forced a Harding fumble.
“We were playing a cat-and-mouse game with them before halftime,” Harding coach Ronnie Huckeba said. “Our game is possession-oriented, so when we were getting a lot of quick scores and three-and-outs, we were were putting way too much pressure on our defense.”
Abenoja’s 19-yard touchdown pass to Gavin Lutman tied the score 21-21 with 25 seconds left in the second quarter.
“I always tell them that if we get ahead, we can’t be comfortable, and if we get behind we can’t panic,” Pittsburg State coach Tim Beck said. “That was a really good rally to get us tied up in the second quarter, and our defense played really well in the second half.”
The Gorillas kept their foot on the pedal in the second half. Abenoja hit Panko with a 21-yard touchdown pass, then Panko scored his third touchdown on a double-reverse pass from wide receiver Bradley Argabright from 31 yards for a 35-21 lead with 6:09 left in the third quarter.
Abenoja finished 25 of 45 for 279 yards and four touchdowns.
“Bradley throws a pretty good ball,” Panko said, laughing. “But (Abenoja) throws a better one.”
Pittsburg State’s defense forced four Harding turnovers, including three second-half fumbles. All-MIAA defensive end Heath Wilson picked up the last one and raced 28 yards for a touchdown and a 59-35 lead.
“The offense (Harding) runs isn’t that complicated, you just have to stay in your gap, stay with your assignments,” Wilson said. “Defensively, I don’t think we were ever too worried.”
It was Pittsburg State’s biggest comeback since rallying from a 22-0 deficit against Northwest Missouri in 2011, the last year the Gorillas won the NCAA Division II title.
“We’ve done a good job of saying we’ll take it one game a time, which I know every coach says, but we have seniors who do a really good job of making that clear,” Beck said. “All we’ve said so far is that we’ll travel. They understand if we keep our focus, we’ll have a great chance to win on Saturdays.”
NCAA Division II
▪ DEFENDING CHAMP NORTHWEST MISSOURI IS OUT: Division II will not have a repeat football champion after Northwest Missouri was bounced from the playoffs in the first round by Minnesota-Duluth 25-21 in Duluth.
The Bearcats finished the season 10-2 after having won the national championship last year. Pitt State was the other team to beat the Bearcats this season.
The Bearcats had a 21-6 lead heading into the final quarter on Friday, but Minnesota-Duluth scored 19 points in the fourth quarter and went ahead on a touchdown with just 26 seconds remaining. Brady Bolles threw for 139 yards for the Bearcats. Eric Reimer had a team-high 12 tackles for, while Brandon Yost had 10 tackles with a sack for Northwest Missouri. Kore Jackson caught three passes for 61 yards for the Bearcats.
▪ MISSOURI VALLEY ADVANCES: The Vikings held Northwestern (Iowa) in the second overtime possession, then kicked a field goal for the 20-17 win. Missouri Valley moved on to the quarterfinals. Malachi Daniels rushed for 90 yards for the Vikings.
▪ OTTAWA LOSES: The Braves gave up 14 points in the second quarter and again in the third and could not catch up at Morningside (Iowa), falling 42-21 in the first round of the playoffs. Luke Lundy rushed for 83 yards in 23 carries for Ottawa.
▪ MIDAMERICA NAZARENE OUT: MidAmerica Nazarene was also knocked out, losing at Southern Oregon 44-26. The Pioneers came back from a 17-3 deficit and tied it 17-17 in the second quarter. But Southern Oregon dominated from there. Javon Taylor ran for 126 yards for the Pioneers.
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