BLACKWATER DRAW — Eastern New Mexico University’s football team played close to a perfect second half Saturday.
The fast-paced “air raid” offense played more ball-control and finished drives while the defense — enjoying unusually long respites on the sideline, chipped in with four interceptions — three by senior cornerback Tillman Stevens — in the final two quarters of a 49-31 Lone Star Conference North Division victory at Blackwater Draw.
Stevens returned one interception 62 yards for a game-clinching score, and would have returned another nearly 90 yards except for an ENMU penalty during the return.
It was quite a bounce-back for the Greyhounds (3-3, 2-1 North) after last week’s stunning 21-10 loss at Southwestern Oklahoma.
“That’s the good thing about playing in the Lone Star — anything can happen,” Tillman said. “You can’t take anybody for granted.”
Senior wide receiver Jessie Poku caught nine passes for 94 yards and three touchdowns, giving him the school career record with 24 TD catches. The Hounds also mounted a solid ground attack, churning out a season-best 229 yards behind Troy Harris and Tony Valenzuela.
“That’s a really good football team,” ENMU coach Mark Ribaudo said of the Bronchos (2-4, 1-1). “I’m proud of our guys to come back like that after a tough week.
“We just ran the ball like champs. Our offensive line and our backs took control of the game in the third quarter.”
The first half was something of a shootout, with each team having trouble stopping the other. Sophomore quarterback Wes Wood threw scoring passes to Poku and junior Darian Dale to erase a 17-7 UCO lead, but the Bronchos drove 69 yards on nine plays and went back in front 24-21 at halftime on a 7-yard pass from sophomore quarterback Ethan Sharp to sophomore wide-out Tucker Holland with 36 seconds left.
Freshman Josh Birmingham, who rushed for 148 yards on 26 carries, gave Central Oklahoma a 31-28 lead on a 58-yard run with 9:28 left in the third, but ENMU countered with a 79-yard, 12-play drive ending in a 10-yard, Wood-to-Poku pass with 5 1/2 minutes left in the period.
“Offensively, I was proud of what our guys did in the first half, but defensively I was concerned,” UCO coach Tracy Holland said. “They (Hounds) were able to get stops (in the second half), and we weren’t.”
ENMU didn’t get any sacks against Sharp, but pressured him constantly and, at one point, sent him to the sidelines shaken up early in the fourth period. His backup, UCO punter Landon Greve promptly threw the pick that Stevens returned for the final tally of the game.
Stevens said Ribaudo delivered a pep talk to the defense at halftime.
“Coach told us that we’re better than this,” he said. “We just came out and executed better.”
Poku was questionable to doubtful for the game after sustaining a neck injury at Southwestern.
“Fortunately, it got better during the week,” he said. “I just thank God I was able to come back.
“We came out and performed today. We’re banged up, but everybody stepped up.”
Wood, who went 30-for-61 at Southwestern, finished 20-for-31 for 194 yards and four TDs in this one. The running game helped ENMU control the ball — and the clock — in the second half.
“We just started converting third downs,” said Wood, who added 67 yards rushing and scrambled out of several near-sacks. “I don’t know much about stats; I just know we showed people how we can play when we come out hungry.”