KEARNEY – University of Nebraska at Kearney intercepted a pass and then scored a touchdown in the first four minutes to take an early lead against Pittsburg State on Saturday night.
It was an encouraging start for the Lopers, but it didn’t last long. The Gorillas scored 27 straight points in a nearly 10-minute span in the first half to secure a sizeable advantage. The margin was too much for the Lopers to overcome, as they fell 37-14 against the 18th-ranked Gorillas at Ron and Carol Cope Stadium at Foster Field.
“We didn’t do enough to win,” UNK coach Josh Lynn said. “Let’s call a spade a spade. In all three phases – offense, defense and special teams – they played better than us tonight.”
The Lopers (2-2) ended Pittsburg State’s first offensive drive with an interception. They swiftly moved down the field and scored the contest’s first points when senior quarterback Alex McGinnis plunged into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown run with 11 minutes, 11 seconds left in the first quarter.
The Gorillas (4-0) responded when Jared Vincent capped a 13-play, 62-yard drive, which lasted nearly eight minutes, with a 20-yard field goal.
Although the Lopers thrived on their first offensive drive, the Gorillas’ defense stacked the box and caused the Lopers to have four consecutive three-and-outs. The Lopers’ defense also was overmatched by the Gorillas, who began their offensive outburst after the Lopers’ first three-and-out.
Quarterback Matt Harman had a 35-yard touchdown pass, Mak Sexton completed a 23-yard touchdown toss and Brandon Mlekus connected with Lorenzo West on a fly route for a 68-yard score to give the Gorillas a 24-7 lead.
Vincent capped the scoring rally with a 23-yard field goal with 8:19 left in the first half.
“We let receivers get behind us,” Lynn said. “I really thought we played the run pretty well up front. But however, when you play the run like that, you have to cover the back end. Sometimes that relates to one-on-one matchups, and we didn’t win those one-on-one matchups. Their receivers out ran us.”
The Lopers had chances to cut into the Gorillas’ 20-point lead before halftime but managed just seven points.
Loper senior running back Luke Quinn broke free for a 9-yard touchdown run with less than six minutes left.
On the ensuing possession, Sexton tried to squeeze a pass into double coverage downfield but his throw landed in the hands of UNK cornerback Terrell Williams in the end zone. However, the Lopers’ offense went three-and-out and quickly returned the ball to the Gorillas.
Sexton made another poor decision on the Gorillas’ next drive, as Loper cornerback David Tolentino picked off a pass attempt. The Lopers started their offensive series on the Pittsburg State 22 but picked up just one yard on the drive, which ended on a missed 38-yard field goal by sophomore place-kicker Junior Gonzalez.
“It goes back to red zone offense and putting points on the board,” Lynn said. “I don’t know if that weighed into the game, but obviously it gives a little momentum going into the second half.”
The Lopers’ defense stepped up in the second half and limited the Gorillas to a field goal. The Gorillas also scored on a 38-yard interception return when Morgan Selemaea jumped an attempted swing pass by the Lopers.
While the Gorillas managed 10 points in the second half, the Lopers’ offense was lifeless. They had no answer for the Gorillas’ size and speed and recorded just six first downs and 64 yards on five drives in the second half.
In the game, the Gorillas controlled the line of scrimmage and held the Lopers to 212 yards of total offense and 13 first downs. The Lopers had seven three-and-outs in the contest and finished with just 137 rushing yards, which is 164 yards below their season average.
The Lopers’ passing attack also was ineffective. Pittsburg State cornerback KiAnte Hardin, a Minnesota transfer, led a talented and athletic secondary group that forced the UNK quarterbacks to throw into tight windows. When the Lopers tried to pass, it typically occurred on third-and-long situations, which didn’t play into their favor.
They desperately missed receivers Montrez Jackson and Sedarius Young on the outside. Both have game-changing speed but were inactive due to injuries.
“Their cornerbacks do a good job of locking down receivers, which really allows them to load the box and when you can’t win on the outside,” Lynn said. “You can’t win against man-to-man matchups… That might be the difference in the game.
“They won the one-on-one matchups with the receivers on offense and we didn’t. They generated big plays in man coverage and we didn’t.”
The Lopers have lost their last four home games dating back to last year. They will try to snap that streak when they face Northeastern (0-4) at 2 p.m. Saturday at Foster Field.