The Racer offense looked less like the “Hatch Attack” and more like a “Heart Attack” in a gutsy come-from-behind victory over the Eastern Illinois Panthers (1-6, 0-5 OVC) 36-27 Saturday.
The Racers (4-3, 2-2 OVC) needed 19 unanswered points and a late defensive turnover to overcome a 10-point deficit heading into the fourth quarter.
Quarterback Casey Brockman, who had been held in check with 12 completions and 80 yards through three quarters, unleashed for 127 yards in the final minutes, converting two third and longs to wide open receiver Ja-Vonta Trotter to move the chains and extend drives.
“We just never gave up,” Brockman said of the offense. “Once we got in our tempo, I think that kind of wore them down.”
Plagued by critical drops and missed third down conversions early on, the Racers ran only 30 offensive plays in the first half, well behind the Hatch Attack goal of 50+ plays per half.
Using ball control and a vicious play action, Eastern Illinois jumped to a 20-14 lead near the end of the second quarter on two long touchdown passes to receiver Chris Wright from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and strong running from halfback Jake Walker.
The Racers, however, were resilient and managed what little time was left in the half to get into field goal range with three seconds remaining.
Senior Kienan Cullen broke the Murray State all-time career field goals record held by Paul Hickert, booting a 39-yarder to draw within 20-17 before the half and giving him his 50th career field goal.
The lone consistent factor on the offense resided in the legs of Mike Harris, who ran his way to 148 yards on 30 carries and four rushing touchdowns.
Harris, who sat out of the game last week in favor of backups Tyler Lavea and Duane Brady, came out ready to wreak havoc on the Panther defense.
“With Mike being able to rush like he did, it really helped out our passing game,” Brockman said. “They tried to take both (passing and rushing) away by putting seven in the box and pressing the outside receivers in man coverage. We finally just got to them in the second half.”
Deep into the fourth quarter and a 27-24 lead, Eastern Illinois looked poised to steal the show when Garappolo completed a 29-yard pass to Wright on third and long. Garappolo, being chased by three Racer linemen, threw off of his back foot and into double coverage.
However, the Murray State defense came up on the next three plays and snuffed out two runs and forced an incomplete pass. From there, the comeback was on.
On the next Racer possession, Brockman went 4-4 for 64 yards with a touchdown to Hannibal Beauford to make it 30-27. The extra point would have forced EIU to score the touchdown to win, but kicker Brandon Potts missed the PAT.
On the ensuing Panther possession and a chance at comeback glory, Garappolo dropped back in the pocket to fire downfield, only to be swarmed by defensive standout Kevin Robinson. Robinson forced and recovered the fumble, and Harris scored on a 24-yard touchdown while trying to run out the clock for the final points of the game.
Coach Chris Hatcher breathed a sigh of relief as he sat down for his post-game interview.
“We pulled one out from the jaws of defeat,” Hatcher said. “Somewhere along the way you need to win a game like this. You’re down late in the ballgame and things aren’t going your way and you’ve got no momentum. And then, you just start making some plays.”
Hatcher said he looks forward to the upcoming bye week so guys can get healthy and so the team can get deeper at several positions.
“It’s really big to get these guys back, especially after a win,” Hatcher said. “At least we’ll have some depth when we get those old boys back.”
The Racers next play OVC rival Eastern Kentucky at 1 p.m. on Oct. 29 in Roy Stewart Stadium, MSU Appreciation Day.