MAGNOLIA — After an uncharacteristic performance in the season-opener, the Southern Arkansas defense and special teams bounced back in a major way on Saturday night as they help propel SAU to a home-opening 50-16 win over East Central at Wilkins Stadium.
On Saturday night, the Mulerider (1-1, 1-1 GAC) defense forced six turnovers, allowed just 10 East Central first downs, and held the Tigers’ (1-1. 1-1 GAC) to 240 yard of total offense on 61 plays for an average of 3.9 yards gained per play.
The stellar defensive performance was on display from the outset as the Muleriders would force the Tigers to punt on the game’s first possession. On that punt attempt, SAU’s Tate Mustin broke through the line and blocked the punt at the ECU 40. SAU’s Alex Mills would recover the block for 21 yards to the ECU 19 to set the Mulerider offense up in the red zone for their first snap.
The big-time play on special teams would pay dividends three plays later as running back Mark Johnson rushed in to the endzone from four yards out to give SAU the early 7-0 lead. On the ensuing kickoff, the Muleriders would get another great play on special teams as Vincent Steward forced fumble at the ECU 20-yard line. That fumble would end up in the arms of Mark Spaight at the ECU 20 to set up another red zone visit for the SAU offense. This time, however, the Muleriders were unable to reach the endzone, but kicker Austin Shoemake connected on a 34-yard field goal to make it a 10-0 SAU lead.
The feverish pace to the beginning of the game would continue on the ensuing kickoff as East Central’s LaQuan Harper returned the kick 94 yards for a touchdown, cutting the SAU lead to three points, 10-7.
On SAU’s ensuing possession, school history was made as the Muleriders’ Mark Johnson became the all-time leading rusher at Southern Arkansas, surpassing former SAU running back Mark Mason’s record of 3,034 yards. Johnson, who was 44 yards shy of the record coming into the game, rushed for 86 yards on 20 carries. The rush that got Johnson the record was a 22-yard burst that put the Muleriders into ECU territory. Later in that drive, Tyler Sykora would find David Bell for a 4-yard touchdown strike to put SAU back up by 10 points 17-7.
That margin would not last long as East Central answered back with a touchdown drive of their own to once again get to within a field goal of SAU, 17-14.
After a combined 31 points in the first quarter alone, it appeared as if a shootout was about to take place, but neither team would score in the second quarter as each team punted the ball away three times during those 15 minutes of play.
Having won the coin toss and electing to receive, East Central kicked off to SAU to start the third quarter. Chris Campbell would return that kick and take it to the SAU 35, but a facemask on the return by East Central set the Muleriders’ offense up with great field position once more. Despite starting their drive at midfield, the Muleriders would be unable to get a first down on the drive and the wound up turning the ball over on downs at the ECU 43.
The short field to defend did not seem to faze the SAU defense as they forced East Central to punt for the fourth consecutive drive going back to the first half. ECU’s offense would not find any more luck against the SAU defense for the remainder of the game as the Mulerider defenders took the ball away from East Central via turnovers on their five of their final six possessions. The first two turnovers in that stretch were forced fumbles by Mark Spaight. Each of those fumbles was recovered by SAU’s Demario Thomas. The final three turnovers were interceptions, the first of which went for a pick-six as Sam Cowling returned his interception 10 yards for the score. James Thurston and Quan Warren would come away with the next two interceptions for SAU.
Four of those five late turnovers would be turned into touchdowns as SAU broke away and eventually cruised to a 50-16 win. It is the second straight game that SAU has scored 50 or more points. Last season, SAU topped the 50-point mark twice (Texas College game one; Arkansas Tech game 10).
The Muleriders will remain at home next week as they will play host to Southwestern Oklahoma on Saturday, September 21. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 pm and the game will also be Family Day at SAU.