By John Martin
Special to The Sun
After facing five top 20 teams en route to an 0-6 start to the 2013 season, the UCO Bronchos might have thought they could catch a break entertaining Central Missouri Saturday afternoon at Wantland Stadium. After all, CMSU was only 2-4 for the season, all four losses coming in the rugged Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association play.
But alas, Central Missouri proved to be as stubborn as their nickname (the Mules) while handing the Bronchos 48-16 defeat.
The Bronchos, with redshirt freshman T. J. Eckert filling in for the injured Adrian Nelson for the second straight game, fell behind early and could never solve the Mules’ blitzing defense. Eckert performed well for the second straight game, connecting on 21 of 30 passes for 200 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions.
Likewise, UCO career scoring and all-purpose yards leader Josh Birmingham did not see action after intermission. He tallied 44 yards in just eight carries, leaving him 521 yards shy of Steve Tate with three games to go. The Bronchos will have an opportunity to give their walking wounded a brief rest during the upcoming bye week. They will next see action against Lincoln University as the UCO family celebrates Homecoming with a 1 p.m. kickoff.
Their final two games are on the road against Southwest Baptist and Northeastern (OK) State, all three winnable games.
With Birmingham on the sidelines, freshman Jake Gandara from Fort Gibson and Norman redshirt freshman Donovan Roberts shared the running load while Eckert scrambled 10 times for 46 yards. Gandara, whose workload has steadily increased as the season has progressed, carried 17 times for 94 yards and one touchdown, with a long gain of 34 yards.
Junior Marquez Clark continues to lead the NCAA-II in all-purpose yards, adding 123 more on 12 catches including a touchdown. He added 22 yards on a kickoff return.
Junior defensive back Thomas Hill had another splendid defensive outing as he registered 10 solo tackles and assisted in four more.
“They banged me pretty hard,” said Hill after the game. “I’m not so sure that is a good stat when I am making tackles in the secondary. I was chasing them all afternoon.”
UCO took the opening kickoff and had to punt after failing to make a first down. CMSU responded with a 67-yard drive climaxed by LaVance Taylor’s one yard plunge and Zach Gebhart gave the Mules a 7-0 lead.
The Bronchos answered with a 75-yard drive that Seth Hiddink topped off with a 29-yard field goal. Big plays on the drive were two eight-yard runs by Birmingham and a 15-yard pass from Eckert to C. J. Carson.
Central Missouri responded with another TD by Taylor to take a 14-3 lead after one quarter of play.
After the two teams traded punts, QB Hayden Hawk connected with Cullen Rosine for an 11-yard TD for a 21-3 lead, but Eckert led the Bronchos back again. Starting on its own 15, UCO opened up the offense with a 10-yard spurt from Birmingham, an 18-yard pass to Clark and Gandara’s big 34 yard blast over tackle that carried to the 20. After Eckert gained nine, he hit Clark for the 11-yard TD and Hiddink made it 21-9.
But the explosive Mules answered back as Hawk and Ronrei Lloyd combined for a 35-yard TD with just 15 seconds left in the half for a 27-9 advantage. Hawk and Lloyd opened the second half with a 72-yard scoring bomb to effectively put the contest out of reach at 34-9.
The Bronchos answered but it took 15 plays to cover the 83 yards, climaxed by Gandara’s two yard TD. Eckert has passes to Clark of 9, 13 and 22 yards, Christian Hood for 16 and rushed for nine more to set up Gandara’s TD. Hill sacked Hawk for a 15-yard loss but Hawk unlimbered his passing arm, rushed for 10 yards to the five and Evan Campbell finished it off from there. The final CM touchdown came on an 18-yard run by Ray Harris early in the second period before reserves took over the game.