UNK football wins second playoff game in program history

Published: Nov. 20, 2021 at 11:10 PM CST
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KEARNEY, Neb. (KSNB) - Junior quarterback TJ Davis ran for a two-yard touchdown with 1:52 left and the Nebraska-Kearney defense made a tackle at its own three-yard line in the waning seconds to help the 21st-ranked Lopers hold off 13th-ranked Western Colorado, 31-24, Saturday afternoon in an NCAA Division II Playoff game in Gunnison, Colo.

The sixth-seeded Lopers (10-2) win a playoff game for the second time in school history and advance to the second round where they’ll take on second-seeded Angelo (Texas) State. The Rams (10-2), from the Lone Star Conference, blasted Minnesota-Duluth today at home, 48-14. Earlier this fall ASU won at Chadron State, 28-24. The game will kick off in San Angelo at 1 p.m. (Nov. 27).

”Western Colorado has a very good football team. We knew going in we had our hands full … playing at elevation and making a 600-mile trip on a couple of buses and going through some Mountain passes. I’m proud of how our team responded,” said UNK head coach Josh Lynn.

Improving to 4-1 in one score games and winning another contest in the final minutes, UNK saw a 24-10 late third quarter lead evaporate. WCU went up tempo and drove 86 yards in 12 plays to make it 24-17 early in the fourth and then a big punt return soon after gave them a short field. Star running back Josh Cummings capped that drive with a three-yard scoring run at the 6:16 mark.

But as it did against Pittsburg State, Washburn, Central Missouri and Emporia State, the Lopers found a way. Davis (Colorado Springs) directed a nine-play, 74-yard touchdown drive that took 4:19 off the clock. A 19-yard completion from Davis to junior receiver Michael Koch (Columbus) kept the drive alive with Davis calling his own number, after a Loper timeout, on 3rd and goal. He had a nifty two-yard run to make it a 14-point game in the third.

”I can think of four last minute, fourth quarter drives for us this year (in MIAA play). That probably pays off today. We didn’t miss a beat when things got tied up. We went right down the field and put one in the end zone,” said Lynn. “Credit Coach (Drew) Thatcher. We went to our counter option game which we hadn’t run all day. It was four plays in a row there and it’s just a different look.”

But the Mountaineers, co-champs of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (RMAC), didn’t go quietly. QB Connor Desch hit a couple of passes and UNK was dinged twice for pass interference to help WCU move the ball down the field. Reserve end Baylor Hellmuth (Hershey) recorded a five-yard sack on 2nd and 10 from the Lopers 43-yard line, forcing the ‘Neers to burn its final timeout with 31 seconds left.

That was huge because, after the second PI call, Desch completed a 25-yard pass to receiver Cole Riters. He jumped up to catch the ball at the UNK three-yard line where corner Terrell Williams (Miami), safety Darius Swanson (Aurora, Colo.) and outside backer Atoa Fox (San Diego) wrestled him to the ground. WCU tried to spike the ball but, instead, were called for a false start. That led to a clock run off and a Loper win.

”It was a back-and-forth game and their offense did some nice stuff to speed us up in the second half to where it put us off balance defensively. Gosh, it goes down to the three-yard line and who knows what happens if we don’t get that penalty late. Glad they didn’t get to run a play because we still may be out there playing,” said Lynn.

Playing a game at 7,750 feet, UNK out gained WCU by a 464-385 margin. Against a defense that was allowing just 14 points and 85 rushing yards per game, the Loper option churned out 281 rushing yards and four TD’s on 52 carries (5.4 avg.). Davis ran 22 times for an even 100 yards, Hastings senior back Dayton Sealey had 61 yards and two scores (seven and 18 yards) on seven attempts with underclassmen Miko Maessner (Kearney H.S.) and Damien Cearns (Denver) combining for 104 yards on 16 carries.

On a blustery day with the winds howling, Davis was 14 of 18 in the air for 183 yards. Sacked just once by a defense with 46 coming in, he completed balls to eight different teammates. Florida senior back Montrez Jackson had five for 54 yards to lead the way.

”It means a lot especially for the older guys. They’ve put so much blood, sweat and tears into the program and for it to be successful,” said Davis.

Defensively, UNK stuffed Cummings on 4th & 1 from the Loper two-yard early in the second quarter. The Lopers were up 10-3 at the time. On the day, the ‘Neers punted five times with Cummings coming on late to have 119 yards on 23 carries (5.2 avg.). Desch was 22 of 37 for 235 yards and was sacked twice. Riters (seven recep., 57 yds.) led the WCU receivers.

Thedford ILB Jacey Nutter and Williams had seven tackles apiece with Omaha corner Jaylen Perkins at six and two pass breakups. Next, Mullen junior end Tell Spies had a four-yard sacks and six total stops. Finally, junior Hunter Kraus (Sargent) averaged 46 yards over four punt attempts.

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