Special to The Sun
A frantic fourth-quarter rally fell short as Central Oklahoma dropped a wild 45-38 Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association decision to intrastate rival Northeastern State in Tahlequah Saturday afternoon.
The Bronchos trailed 38-17 early in the fourth quarter before making things interesting down the stretch with three touchdowns in the final 10 minutes, but a school-record-tying five interceptions — including two inside the NSU 10-yard line — was too much to overcome.
UCO had a two-game winning streak stopped in dropping its fourth straight President’s Cup battle to the RiverHawks and ended the season 2-8.
“We battled and gave ourselves a chance at the end, but you can’t turn the ball over like that and expect to win,” Univeristy of Central Oklahoma head coach Nick Bobeck said. “It’s a tough way to end the season.”
T.J. Eckert hit 33-of-50 passes for 385 yards — the sixth-best game in school history — and three touchdowns as the Bronchos rolled up 551 total yards.
Marquez Clark tied his own school record with 13 catches for 156 yards in finishing with a single-season UCO record 82 receptions.
Joshua Birmingham had 114 yards and two touchdowns rushing on 17 attempts, becoming just the second player in school history to reach the 1,000-yard mark (1,071) three times.
The RiverHawks ended up with 490 total yards, including 284 rushing. Tanner Koons made 12 tackles, including a pair for losses, to lead the defense.
Northeastern State appeared in control after taking a 38-17 lead early in the final period, but Clark’s 35-yard kickoff return ignited a 55-yard scoring drive that Birmingham ended with a one-yard smash up the middle with 9:06 remaining.
The Bronchos forced a quick punt and Clark’s 14-yard return set up another 55-yard TD march. Eckert had third-down passes of 10 yards to Christian Hood and 15 to Issac Whitney to keep the drive alive and he ended it with a 20-yard scoring strike to Sam Johnson.
Seth Hiddink’s extra point pulled UCO within 38-31 with 6:03 still to play and the Bronchos had the momentum, but NSU quarterback Thor Long broke off an 85-yard run on a scramble to set up a one-yard TD that put the RieverHawks back in front by 14 at the 4:47 mark.
The Bronchos were intercepted at the Northeastern State seven on their next possession before using all three timeouts and a defensive stop to get the ball right back at the RiverHawk 40 following a short punt.
Eckert hit Clark with a 31-yard pass on first down and the Bronchos scored five players later on Eckert’s fourth-down pass to Hood from four yards out.
Hiddink’s PAT made it 45-38 with 1:30 remaining, but NSU recovered the onside kick and ran out the rest of the clock.
Eckert was intercepted near mid-field on UCO’s first possession, but the Bronchos got the ball right back when Chase Talbert picked off a Northeastern pass at the Central 30-yard-line.
It took just two plays for the Bronchos to take the lead, with Eckert throwing to Clark for nine yards on first down before Birmingham broke free for a 61-yard score on the next play. Birmingham burst through a big hole over the left side and sprinted untouched the rest of the way for his 10th career TD run of 50-plus yards.
Hiddink added the extra point to make it 7-0 just four minutes into the game.
The RiverHawks tied it late in the opening quarter and then stopped Birmingham on a fourth-down run at the NSU 26 before going on a 16-play, 74-yard drive to take a 14-7 lead midway through the second period.
Eckert had passes of 22 yards to Hood and 24 to Clark as Central Oklahoma followed with a 65-yard drive that stalled at the Northeastern 10. The Bronchos lost four yards after reaching a first-and-goal at the six before Hiddink came on to knock through his ninth straight field goal — this one from 27 yards — to make it 14-10 with 5:09 left in the half.
The RiverHawks scored 10 unanswered points the rest of the way, capping a 71-yard touchdown drive at the 2:14 mark and adding a 50-yard field goal with 25 seconds left.
NSU took over at the Broncho 45 following Eckert’s second interception of the half, but Adrian Shoecraft knocked down a third-down pass from the 33 five plays later to force the long, wind-aided field goal.
The Bronchos opened the second half with a nine-play, 75-yard scoring drive to make it 24-17 as Eckert was 4-of-4 passing for 42 yards. Hood capped the march with a tough over-the-shoulder grab in the back of the end zone from six yards out for his first TD of the season.
Central Oklahoma forced a punt on the RiverHawks’ first second-half possession as Kenny Allen had a pair of sacks, but UCO went nowhere after a drive-opening 27-yard screen pass from Eckert to Birmingham and the RiverHawks followed with an 81-yard TD drive to go ahead 32-17.
Eckert’s fourth interception of the game — and the second after the ball was tipped in the air — led to a 45-yard NSU touchdown drive that made it 38-17 early in the final quarter.