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Hilltoppers Comeback Falls Short, 27-19

September 11, 2011
The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

WEST LIBERTY - A desperation hook-and-lateral play on the final snap of the game came up a few yards short for West Liberty on Saturday afternoon at Russek Field and Southern Connecticut State hung on for a 27-19 victory against the error-plagued Hilltoppers.

Junior quarterback L.D. Crow posted the first 300-yard passing game of his career and an aroused West Liberty defense held the visitors to just 277 yards of total offense but it wasn't enough to overcome eight turnovers and a staggering 113 yards in ill-timed penalties as the Owls avenged last year's WLU victory in New Haven, Conn.

''Consistency," a frustrated Hilltoppers coach Roger Waialae said. ''That's what it all comes down to. I know we're putting a lot of new faces on the field this year but the season's started so, there aren't any excuses. We just have to get better.''

Crow completed 26 of 43 passes for 318 yards and two touchdowns but was victimized by six interceptions. One of those interceptions was returned 40 yards for a touchdown by SCSU defensive back Steven Teague in the final minute of the first half, giving the visitors a 14-10 lead at intermission.

''I know what L.D. is going through right now,'' Waialae said. ''I probably set the record for interceptions thrown when I played but the most important thing I learned was that I had to forget about them as soon as they happened and just keep playing. You can see he has the ability and he'll just keep getting better as he continues to get more comfortable with the offense. I'm not worried about L.D.''

The Hilltoppers offense came roaring out of the box with Crow firing a 26-yard TD strike to Brandon Schroeder to cap West Liberty's opening possession before directing another lengthy drive which ended in a 33-yard Jeff Hoak field goal for a 10-0 lead midway through the opening quarter.

Following another defensive stop, the hosts seemed on the verge of putting the game away when they marched right back down the field only to turn the ball over on downs inside the SCSU 10 just after the start of the second quarter.

The WLU defense forced another three-and-out and the stands erupted when Crow found a leaping Tristen Devers with an apparent 54-yard touchdown bomb only to see the points wiped off the board by a holding call.

''Don't forget about our defense,'' Waialae said. ''We turned the ball over eight times against a team that's been to the NCAA playoffs four of the past six seasons and still had a chance to pull the game out on the final play. Our offense put our defense in some tough situations and they more than held their own against a veteran team that returned almost all of its starters from a year ago.''

Having narrowly escaped being faced with a 24-0 deficit, the Owls responded with the first of their six interceptions as linebacker Chevar Rankins tipped a deflected Crow pass to himself near midfield. A few minutes later, the visitors cracked the scoreboard for the first time with a 3-yard pass from preseason All-America QB Kevin Lynch to preseason All-America WR Willie Epps. That cut the lead to 10-7, putting SCSU in position to take the lead for good on Teague's interception return.

The West Liberty defense forced a three-and-out on the opening series of the second half but the Hilltoppers muffed the ensuing punt and Southern Connecticut recovered at the WLU 28, setting up a 28-yard TD pass from Lynch to Epps on the very next snap for a 20-10 lead.

The Hilltoppers trimmed the margin to 20-12 near the end of the third quarter when punter Griffin Yocum launched a 59-yard rocket over Andre Privott's head. The return man tracked the ball down inside his own 5 and gave up a safety when he tried to throw the ball out of the end zone as he was being tackled.

The West Liberty offense mounted several drives in the second half but couldn't cash in. Two of the longer forays were short-circuited by interceptions in the end zone and penalties aborted a couple of other possessions.

The Owls' final touchdown was set up by a fluke interception when a defensive lineman batted away a pass at the line of scrimmage and caught his own deflection, setting up a 1st-and-goal at the WLU 6. Slowley slammed across from a yard out for a 27-12 lead with 9:38 left in the game.

Despite their collective misfortunes, the Hilltoppers still managed to make things interesting at the end.

Crow hit a wide-open Devers for a 35-yard touchdown with 1:32 remaining to cap a nine-play, 59-yard drive and Hoak's PAT made it a one-possession game.

Southern Connecticut recovered the onside kick but couldn't run all the time off the clock, turning the ball over on downs at their own 47 with just 4.1 seconds remaining.

Crow fired a quick strike over the middle to Devers, who lateraled to tailback Brandon Davis. He carried the ball to the 20 before being hemmed in. His desperation lateral was recovered by an SCSU defensive back to end the game.