PITTSBURG — No. 12 Emporia State held on to a one-possession halftime lead to defeat Pittsburg State 41-36 Saturday at Carnie Smith Stadium.
The first half between the Gorillas and Hornets was a true shootout, as both teams combined to score 55 points and gain 592 yards of total offense, with ESU taking a 31-24 lead into the locker room on a late touchdown before the intermission. After a scoreless third quarter, the Gorillas cut the lead to one possession late in the fourth, but were unable to stop the Hornets from draining the clock while connecting on a field goal with 1:01 to play to essentially seal the win.
“We have to move on to the next one, and learn from [this loss],” Pitt State linebacker Spencer Brown said. “Everybody’s got to be all in because we still have three football games to play.”
The loss marks the third of the season for the Gorillas (5-3), with each defeat coming at home.
“You’ve got to come back tomorrow with a good attitude, even as hard as that sounds, as coaches and players,” Pitt State head coach Tim Beck said when asked what the message to the team was after the loss. “We are a young team overall, for the most part, and we have to continue to work and get better.”
Pitt State quarterback John Roderique Jr. completed 29-of-54 passes for a school-record 473 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. The previous record was held by Anthony Abenoja, who threw for 442 yards against Lincoln on Sept. 28, 2013.
PSU’s Levi Copelin led all wide receivers with 134 yards and three touchdowns on eight grabs.
Slade Nordic added 109 yards receiving on five catches, while Austin Panko caught seven passes for 102 yards.
ESU quarterback Braxton Marstall completed 28-of-37 passes for 321 yards and one touchdown. He added 73 yards and two scores on 18 rushing attempts.
Landon Nault led all runners with 82 yards and score on 24 carries.
“We saw it all week in practice and in film, we just didn’t execute well enough,” said Brown.
Normally a strength for Pitt State’s offense, the Gorillas rushed for a season-low 51 yards as a team.
The Hornets got on the scoreboard first, using a 12-yard run for a touchdown on a quarterback keeper by Marstall to go up 7-0, with 12:48 to play in the first quarter.
Marstall completed three passes on the drive, which was kicked off by a Morris Williams 45-yard run on a reverse to get ESU into Pitt State territory.
Pitt State’s offense answered with a 24-yard field goal from Chad Levin to cut the Hornet lead to 7-3 near the nine-minute mark in the opening quarter.
Roderique opened the Gorillas’ opening drive with a 32-yard completion to Panko over the middle of the field to get in ESU territory. Roderique completed a 32-yard pass to Brenner Clemons on third-and-8 later in the drive to get PSU inside the Hornet 10-yard line, but a chop-block penalty stalled the drive and forced the Gorillas into the field goal.
The Hornets drove 75 yards on six plays, with Williams taking the handoff to the near-side pylon for a touchdown, on fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line to push the early ESU lead to 14-3 midway through the first quarter.
The score was set up by a 63-yard completion from Marstall to Jaylen Lowe early in the drive.
The Gorillas scored their first touchdown of the game on their second drive, with Roderique connecting on a pass over the middle to Copelin for 21 yards and a touchdown to trim the ESU lead to 14-10, with 3:44 to play in the first quarter.
A pair of dropped passes to start the drive put the Gorillas behind the eight ball, but Roderique completed the third-and-10 pass to Panko for a gain of 14 yards to keep the possession alive.
Pitt State’s defense got the game’s first stop, forcing a Hornet punt and shifting the momentum, as the offense rewarded them by taking the lead on the following drive.
Facing a third-and-14 from the ESU 28-yard line, Roderique went up the left side off the field and found Copelin, who bobbled the ball before falling down in the end zone with possession for a touchdown, to give the Gorillas a 17-14 lead, with less than two minutes to play in the opening quarter.
It looked as if the momentum was firmly in favor of Pitt State after a second straight stop on defense, but a fumble by running back Michael Rose — the first turnover of the game — on PSU’s own 32-yard gave the ball back to Emporia State. Pitt State’s defense was able to hold the Hornets to a 34-yard field goal from ESU’s Austin Mortin, which tied the game at 17-all at the 10:52 mark of the second quarter.
Emporia State put on a 10-play, 89-yard drive to regain the lead over the Gorillas, with Marstall scrambling to his left on first-and-10 before finding Williams wide open at the PSU 3-yard line for a 24-yard touchdown to make the score 24-17.
Pitt State answered back with an 85-yard drive of its own to tie the game back up with less than three minutes to play in the first half.
Roderique — who completed four passes on the drive — found Copelin streaking up the far sideline for a 25-yard pitch-and-catch touchdown to tie the score at 24-all.
Unfortunately, leaving the Hornets 2:30 left in the half was more than enough time for Emporia State to take the lead into the intermission.
After driving 50 yards on eight plays — using four completions through the air to pick up majority of the yards — Marstall dropped back on second-and-2, tucked the ball, and ran up the middle before breaking to the far sideline and crossing the goal line for a 20-yard touchdown run. The late score gave ESU a 31-24 lead, with 37 seconds to play in the opening half.
After a scoreless third quarter, Emporia State pushed their lead to two possessions, 38-24, when Louis Dailey caught a second-and-8 pass on a curl route, broke a tackle and sprinted his way down to the Gorilla 1-yard line for a 46-yard gain. The big play set up a touchdown run by Nault on the ensuing first-and-goal play, with 13:41 left in the game.
Looking to respond, Pitt State drove 71 yards to get down inside the ESU 5-yard line.
Facing a fourth-and-goal from the 4-yard line, Roderique’s pass was tipped at the line and fell incomplete to turn the ball over on downs.
The Gorilla defense forced the Hornets into a three-and-out, giving Roderique and the offense good field position on the next drive.
Pitt State cut the lead to eight, 38-30, when Roderique found paydirt on a keeper from 1 yard out to cap off the 34-yard drive, with 7:29 to play. Kicker Chad Levin missed the extra-point attempt, which would have trimmed the lead to seven points.
Pitt State’s defense couldn’t get a stop against the Hornet offense, as they drained more than six minutes off the clock on their ensuing drive, which ended with a 37-yard field goal by Mortin to push the lead to 41-30, with 1:01 to play.
The Gorillas found the end zone on a 29-yard pass from Roderique to Andre Taylor, but were unable to recover the onside kick with five seconds remaining.
Pittsburg State hits the road with a matchup against No. 1 Northwest Missouri State at 2:30 p.m. in Maryville, Missouri.
-- Lucas Davis is the sports editor of the Pittsburg Morning Sun. E-mail him at email@example.com and follow him on twitter @LDsportswriter.