For the first 55 minutes on Homecoming Saturday at McKendree University it appeared the highlights of the day for an overflow crowd were going to be pre-game and post-game tailgate parties in the Leemon Field parking lots.
But the McKendree University Bearcats had other ideas.
Junior quarterback Elcee Burke lofted a 4-yard touchdown pass to Skylar Paulson with 43 seconds remaining to cap a miracle comeback as McKendree defeated St. Joseph’s (Ind.) College 20-16 in a Great Lakes Valley Conference football game.
Outplayed by the Pumas (4-3, 2-2) for more than 3 1/2 quarters, the Bearcats marched 83 yards for one touchdown and used a blocked punt by John Alvin III to set up the winning touchdown — all in the final five minutes — as they turned what appeared to be a disappointing loss into a win for the record books on a warm October Saturday afternoon.
“It’s a very big win for this football team against a very good opponent. But let’s be honest about it. From here on out, every opponent is going to be a good football tea,” McKendree coach Mike Babcock said. “We sputtered against their defense and it seemed like we could never get their offense off the field. They (St. Joseph’s) did a great job of taking time off the clock. It was a case of us bending but not breaking.
“But in the end we made the plays. We drove the ball down the field and scored, and we executed on the blocked punt. We executed when we needed too down the stretch.”
St. Joseph’s in charge
Burke, who completed 10-of-27 for 103 yards, gave McKendree (4-3, 2-2) a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter when he threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to former Edwardsville High School standout Darius Crochrell. But St. Joseph, which rushed for more than 275 yards, took the lead at halftime when Martez Walker tallied on a 3-yard run.
Walker, who rushed for 88 yards, scored with 2 minutes 41 seconds left before halftime.
Burke, better known for his running ability, struggled in the third quarter. The athletic Bearcats junior, who lost a fumble earlier was intercepted twice deep in his own territory. But the Bearcats defense, which got a 25 combined tackles from AJ Wentland and Tobias Cook, made big plays to halt the marches.
St. Joseph’s kicker Marcin Gowlak booted field goals of 24 and 26 yards, as the Pumas lead grew to 16-7. But it could have been worse.
Things looked bleak for McKendree which had the ball on its own 17 yard line with about five minutes remaining. But Burke, using his scrambling ability, had gains of 19 and 12 yards and the Pumas were called for a pair of penalties which also aided the march.
Finally, with the ball at the Pumas 11-yard line, Burke fired a strike to Balster who scored to cut the lead to 16-13.
“I think we just started simply playing ‘pitch and catch,’ on the touchdown drive. We had dropped a couple of passes earlier in the game. This time we caught them,” Babcock said. “We also we got a couple of penalties called against them on that drive which helped. But I give credit to our defense as well. In the third quarter when we had a couple of interceptions deep in our territory, for our defense to hold them to three points both times was huge.”
Trailing 16-14 with 1:26 left, the Bearcats onside kick failed and the Pumas seemingly had the game wrapped up with the ball near midfield. But using all three of its time outs, the Bearcats forced St. Joseph’s into a fourth down situation with a minute left.
On fourth down, Marcin, under an avalanche of McKendree special team players, had his punt blocked by Alvin and picked up and returned by Weston Brown to inside the 10-yard line.
“I came from the back side,’’ Alvin said. “We work on that play every day in practice. It was just a matter of executing.”
Two plays later, Burke executed when he found Paulson in the back of the end zone as the Bearcats sideline erupted.
“Say what you want. In that situation, its do-or-die,’’ Babcock said. “Trailing by three points we had to go for the block and the players executed.”