AP photo by Mark Almond|
UNA linebacker Michael Johnson (52) tries to stop Delta State running back Phillip Graves during the second quarter of the Division II quarterfinal playoff game in Florence on Saturday. Delta State ousted the Lions 27-10. North Alabama’s season ends at 11-1. Delta State improved to 12-2.
UNA can’t stop Delta State offense as Lions ousted from D-II playoffs
By Mark Edwards
email@example.com · 340-2461
FLORENCE — The clock kept ticking down Saturday.
It ticked down on North Alabama’s Division II playoff quarterfinal game. It ticked down on the Lions’ season. It ticked down on their hopes of a national championship.
“And we couldn’t do anything about it,” said a bleary-eyed Anthony Merritt, a senior receiver for UNA. “The season and my college career was ticking off right in front of me.”
The Lions’ dream season ended with a 27-10 loss at home to Delta State. The Statesmen handed them their first loss of the year by controlling that clock, by controlling the game and by controlling UNA like the Lions did Delta State earlier this season.
UNA won an Oct. 21 meeting at Delta State 17-10 when its offense kept the ball for nearly two-thirds of the game. The Statesmen turned that around almost exactly Saturday, keeping the ball for 38 of the game’s 60 minutes.
“This is probably one reason Division I coaches don’t want to go with playoffs,” UNA coach Mark Hudspeth said.
“You can have a great season, but only one team doesn’t end the year on a sour note.”
Delta State (12-2), which will play at Grand Valley State in Saturday’s semifinals, piled up 496 yards, but it helped that whenever the Statesmen allowed UNA (11-1) to have the ball, they got it back quickly.
The Lions’ Gulf South Conference-leading offense struggled so much that with about three minutes to play, they had compiled only 80 yards.
Only a late touchdown drive kept the Lions from having their worst offensive day since 1985, when they picked up only 64 yards in a 14-7 win over Fort Valley State.
Down 27-3, UNA managed 68 yards on the drive for its lone touchdown of the day, which came on a 12-yard pass from A.J. Milwee to Jason Messing.
“Sometimes it’s just your day, and maybe that was the case in this game,” said Delta State coach Rick Rhoades, a former Alabama and Kentucky assistant coach under Bill Curry.
“The thing about playoff football is that somebody’s going to get hot. I told the team the other day that momentum was wearing a green (Delta State) jersey.”
Delta State did it with a different defensive scheme than it presented to UNA in October.
The Statesmen moved and stunted and never gave UNA a set defense to attack. Hudspeth said that took away some of what the Lions wanted to do. He said that at times, they thought they were going against one certain defense only to find out when the play was in motion that they were wrong.
“Normally, teams that do that don’t do it against us because we play so fast with our no-huddle offense,” Hudspeth said.
In addition, Delta State rarely allowed A.J. Milwee to scramble, which he did so well in a win last week against Newberry. He ran for more than 100 yards and three touchdowns in that one.
Against Delta State, he completed 14 of 30 passes for 134 yards and was sacked six times. He scrambled only four times for 17 yards.
“With a power offense like that one, we had to take out the head — and he’s the head,” said Delta State linebacker Michael Eubanks, who had three sacks.
UNA’s only points other than the touchdown came just before halftime. Delta State led 13-0 when it had a touchdown called back because of a holding penalty. Three plays later, Statesmen quarterback Scott Eyster completed a 5-yard pass to Robert Davis at the UNA 29, but Davis fumbled.
The Lions’ Keldrick Docher recovered and returned it to the Delta State 6. Three plays netted no yards, and Yuta Fukuda kicked a 24-yard field goal with three seconds left before half.
Eyster completed 26 of 35 passes for 227 yards. He threw two touchdown passes to Jeremy Ricks, ran for a score and led an offense that could’ve put up more points than it did. Delta State failed to make first downs on fourth-down plays from the UNA 22, 24 and 30.
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