The Racers’ fate came down to one final play Saturday night, and sophomore receiver Jeremy Harness knew the ball was coming his way.
“I knew when I got outside I was going to be wide open,” Harness said. “I just had to make sure I kept running and caught the ball when it was coming.”
Fortunately for the Racers, Harness did make the catch and ran all the way to a Murray State victory. After nine consecutive years of losing to Jacksonville State, the Racers overcame the undefeated Gamecocks 35-34 in a thrilling overtime battle.
The opening game of both teams’ OVC schedules came down to the wire, as Jacksonville State kicker Griffin Thomas tied the game at 27 with a 25-yard field goal as the fourth quarter expired.
With momentum on the Gamecock’s side, junior running back DaMarcus James capped off his impressive 229-yard, three-touchdown game with a quick, 13-yard touchdown run to give Jacksonville State a seven-point overtime lead.
Needing a touchdown to keep the game alive, the Racer offense struggled, failing to gain any yards on its first three overtime plays. Facing a potentially game-ending fourth-and-10, sophomore quarterback Maikhail Miller found Harness for a 13-yard completion to extend the game.
Miller then proceeded to run the ball down to the one-yard line before punching it in for the score.
Faced with the choice of kicking an extra point and sending the game to double-overtime or going for the two-point conversion to win it, Head Coach Chris Hatcher called a timeout.
After the game, Hatcher said the decision was simple.
“When you’re on the road against a team that’s ranked higher than you that you haven’t had any success against, why not?” Hatcher said.
Miller took the snap and immediately found Harness standing all alone on the right side. Harness caught the pass and sprinted into the endzone untouched before being mobbed by teammates as the Murray State sideline erupted onto the field.
“It was just like coach tells us all the time, to be ready when your number is called,” Harness said. “Coach called the play, I knew it was coming to me and I was just ready when my number was called.”
Before defeating Missouri State in the final minute two weeks ago, the Racers had not won a game on the final possession during Hatcher’s four-year tenure as Head Coach. Now the Racers have won two of the last three in comeback fashion.
More importantly, the Racers move to 3-2 on the season and are off to a perfect 1-0 start in conference play.
“It always helps to start off conference play with a win and that’s something we haven’t done since I’ve been the coach,” Hatcher said. “To win in that fashion and play a game against a great football team and be able to make one more play than they did says a lot about the character of our team.”
While the game Saturday night is only the beginning of a grueling conference schedule, Hatcher did not downplay the importance of the victory.
“This ranks up there as one of the biggest wins I’ve ever had,” Hatcher said.
The Racers will look to improve to 2-0 in the conference next Saturday as the 3-2 Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles visit Roy Stewart Stadium.
Coming off a thrilling victory of their own, the Golden Eagles suffered a major setback last week against Indiana State as senior running back Bud Golden reportedly suffered a leg injury.
Though they may have to adjust their offense after losing one of the top contributors, the Golden Eagles will likely continue to rely on their stout defense, which currently ranks fourth in the conference through the first five games.
Despite the winning effort Saturday, Hatcher said he hopes to see his team continue to make improvements as it prepares to face Tennessee Tech.
“We must get better at getting off the field on defense,” Hatcher said. “We’re not giving up the big play but we’re playing way too many snaps on that side of the ball. Offensively, we just have to do a better job of being more consistent. If we improve in those two areas I feel good about where we’re headed.”
As the Racers look to start their conference play 2-0 for the first time since 1998, Hatcher is just trying to keep his team grounded.
“Every week is a big week,” said Hatcher. “Every week you’re playing for the championship. And if you do that, maybe one day later in the year we will be playing for the championship.”
Story by Jonathan Ferris, Staff Writer