Special to The Sun
BOLIVAR, Mo. —
Two touchdowns in an eight-second span late in the first half gave Central Oklahoma the lead and the Bronchos went on to trim Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association rival Southwest Baptist 38-31 on the road Saturday afternoon.
The Bronchos trailed 14-10 when quarterback T.J. Eckert dove into the end zone from a yard out with 40 seconds left in the second quarter to cap a final-minute drive and Sam Johnson scored on a 10-yard fumble return on the ensuing kickoff eight seconds later to give UCO a 21-10 edge.
The Bronchos never trailed again, but the Bearcats made things interesting in the final seconds after pulling within 38-31 on a 74-yard touchdown pass with 15 seconds left to play.
But Central Oklahoma recovered the onside kick to ensure the victory, improving to 2-7 on the season and in league play with its second straight win.
“It was sloppy and we made far too many mistakes, but we got out of here with a win,” said head coach Nick Bobeck, whose team ends the season next Saturday at Northeastern State in Tahlequah. “We played well at times on both sides of the ball, but there were also a lot of things we did wrong that have to be corrected.”
Joshua Birmingham carried a career-high 36 times for 188 yards and two touchdowns while also scoring on a 64-yard pass to lead the offense, which finished with 429 total yards. Eckert ended up 16-of-31 passing for 223 yards and a score.
The Bronchos gave up 413 yards, with 166 of that coming on three plays. Kenny Allen had three of UCO’s seven sacks and Mike Harris finished with a team-high nine tackles.
Southwest Baptist wasted little time in taking the early lead, going 85 yards in just five plays on the opening drive of the game and scoring on a 41-yard pass to go up 7-0 after just two minutes of play.
The Bronchos answered quickly on their first possession, covering 68 yards in 10 plays and getting the tying touchdown on Birmingham’s five-yard sweep around the left side. Birmingham had 38 yards on six carries to spark the drive, with UCO also benefitting from 20 yards in penalties against the Bearcats.
SBU came right back and had a 41-yard run en route to moving to a first-and-goal at the UCO six-yard-line before the Bronchos stiffened. Ashton Dandy had a five-yard sack on third down from the five to force the Bearcats to settle for a 27-yard field goal and a 10-7 lead with 6:24 still left in the opening quarter.
Adrian Shoecraft had a big sack to stop Southwest Baptist’s next possession and the Bronchos appeared to have taken the lead when Birmingham broke off what would have been a school-record 99-yard scoring sprint, but Central Oklahoma was called for holding.
The Bronchos ended up punting on that possession and also did little the next two times they had the ball, but SBU was having no success against Allen and his defensive mates. UCO forced four straight punts, with Adrian Mack nearly intercepting a screen pass and Allen coming up with a sack to force a late first-half punt that set up the late scoring flurry.
Central went 51 yards for the go-ahead score, with the biggest play a spectacular diving 19-yard catch by Christian Hood on a third-and-five play that carried to the one. Eckert dove over the top on the next play from there and the Bronchos led 14-10 after Seth Hiddink’s extra point with 40 seconds later.
And eight seconds later it was 21-10.
Ashton Young interrupted an intended reverse on the ensuing kickoff, with Johnson there to scoop up the fumble and coast into the end zone for the score that made it 21-10 at the 32-second mark.
The Bearcats started the second half like they did the game, going 65 yards on their first possession to cut the Bronchos’ lead to 21-17, and then threatened again the next time they got the ball.
Southwest Baptist had fourth-and-one at the UCO 30, but the Bronchos held when Jason Frimpong and Mack stopped Chad Nolan for no gain.
Central Oklahoma needed just three plays to push its lead to 28-17 when Birmingham took a screen pass from Eckert and weaved his way for a 64-yard touchdown. Birmingham picked up a key downfield block from wideout Marquez Clark to spring loose.
A fumbled punt gave the Bearcats a chance to cut into that lead moments later and again the defense came through, with Allen crashing past the line for his third sack of the day to force an SBU punt.
The Bronchos made it 35-17 with a time-consuming 15-play, 98-yard TD march that ate up more than seven minutes of the clock. Eckert hit all five pass attempts in that drive for 58 yards and Birmingham picked up the other 40 in eight runs, capping it with a one-yard plunge on fourth down.
Southwest Baptist scored on a fourth-down play on its next drive to make it 35-24 with 8:08 remaining, with Hiddink’s 47-yard field goal — his 12th of the season and eighth straight — pushing UCO’s lead to 38-24 at the 3:48 mark.
The Bearcats failed to pick up a first down on their next possession, but then stopped the Bronchos at their own 21 in the final minute and made things interesting at the end with the long scoring pass.