East Central University cornerback Dontae Smith said defensive coordinator Justin Deason gave his players a simple charge before the season began.
“He said he wanted us to be a pit bull defense,” Smith recalled amid the locker room celebration following ECU’s impressive 48-21 victory over Northeastern Saturday at Norris Field. “On game day, he lets us off the chain.”
Deason’s defense had been the most opportunistic in the Lone Star Conference, forcing at league-high 23 turnovers and returning four for touchdowns through eight games, but Smith and Co. took their fury to another level against the shell-shocked Northeastern offense. The RiverHawks, who entered the game with a 5-3 overall record and a perfect (4-0) LSC North slate, managed just 218 total yards and left town licking their wounds — their one-game lead over the overachieving Tigers just a memory. ECU — picked last in the North in preseason after going 0-11 a year ago — improved to 4-5 overall and 4-1 in conference pay and can claim at least a share of the school’s first-ever North title with a victory Saturday night at Texas A&M-Commerce.
“The kids came out really focused,” ECU coach Tim McCarty said after seeing his club post its fourth win in six games. “It’s a milestone win for our program.
“We flopped around a little bit in the third quarter,” he said. “We had some injuries and had to shuffle some things around, but we came back and the offense played better in the fourth quarter.”
ECU outgained NSU, 274-72 in a first half that ended with the Tigers up 24-7, and the defense would have pitched a first-half shutout if not for a fumble that gave the RiverHawks a first down at the ECU 9 and led to a cheap touchdown. The lead grew to 26-7 when a Northeastern snap out of punt formation went over the head of punter Cody Lenz and was kicked through the end zone by Lenz for a safety with 10:40 left in the third quarter, and it ballooned to 33-7 on the RiverHawks’ next offensive snap.
After the second of five straight three-and-outs by the ECU offense to start the second half, NSU back-up quarterback Woody Wilson attempted a pass on a first down from the 20. He was buried by Tiger defensive end Armonty Bryant and fumbled, and Bryant picked up the loose ball and bulled into the end zone for his second touchdown of the season — and the sixth by Deason’s defense through nine games — with 9:04 still left in the period.
“The guys had the want-to to win today,” said Bryant, a sophomore who had three sacks in the game to take over the conference lead with nine in his first season at ECU. “Going into the game, I thought something big would happen, and I think everybody else felt the same way.”
Northeastern’s defense held the ECU offense without a first down for the remainder of the period, and the Riverhawks had battled their way back into the game long before the quarter ended.
A short kickoff gave NSU a first down at the 50 on the possession after Bryant’s score, and six plays later quarterback Kenny Davis hit wideout Sean Donahue for a touchdown pass on third-and-8 from the ECU 17 with 6:46 left in the quarter. Another three-and-out led to Ryan Massengale’s third punt of the period, but this time NSU’s Gus Jones stormed in to block the kick and Steven Hopper recovered in the end zone to suddenly made it 33-21 with 4:15 remaining in the third.
The Tigers continued to struggle on offense into the fourth quarter, but Deason’s defense made big plays to stop two promising drives and finally turn the momentum back to ECU for good.
Northeastern drove from its 37 to the ECU 45 late in the third period, but tailback Josh Lewis was stopped for a three-yard loss by linebacker Kerel James, and Bryant sacked Davis on the next play to force a punt. ECU ran one offensive play to end a quarter that saw 23 points scored by two teams who managed just 64 yards in total offense, and the Tigers punted again after their fifth straight possession without a first down.
The home crowd and bench started to squirm a bit when the RiverHawks drove from their 20 to a first down at the Tiger 11, but ECU freshman linebacker Jameel Whitney sacked Davis for a one-yard loss on third-and-8, and NSU kicker Drew Patton was wide left on a chip-shot 27-yard field goal with 10:37 to play.
As things turned out, that was the last hurrah for the Riverhawks on either side of the ball. They ran just 10 plays and managed just 34 yards the rest of the way, and the slumbering ECU offense — which had gained just 24 yards since halftime — suddenly came to life.
Junior quarterback Tyler Vanderzee, who had one of the strangest — and, in the end, one of the most productive — games of his college career, hit sophomore wideout Jo Jo Euwins on a game-clinching 76-yard scoring bomb down the middle (Vanderzee’s fourth touchdown pass of 70 yards or more this season) just two plays after Patton’s missed field goal, and although the snap was botched on the extra point, the Tigers led 39-21 with 9:50 left.
ECU’s special teams redeemed themselves when, after a three-and-out by NSU, Victor Cooper blocked a punt that Lenz again kicked backward through the end zone for a safety at the 9:01 mark. Freshman Markell Walker — who also had six tackles from his free safety spot — returned the ensuing free kick 14 yards to the ECU 41, and the Tigers ate up almost six minutes on a nine-play drive to the game’s final touchdown.
Vanderzee, who threw two touchdown passes in the game and caught another on a trick play in the first quarter, got the initial first down on the drive with a 40-yard scamper to the NSU 14 on a third-and-5, then freshman tailback Domonique Massengill sandwiched a pair of 10-yard runs around a holding penalty to give ECU a second-and-goal at the 3. Walker lost two yards on the next play, but one snap later junior Charles Opeseyitan bulled over from five yards out. Matt Berrey’s extra point made it 48-21 ith just 3:12 showing on the clock.
Despite their issues in the third quarter, the Tigers rolled up a season-high 445 yards, and, although they didn’t have a 100-yard rusher for the first time in four weeks, they had over 100 yards as a team — 157 to be exact — for the first time this season.
Opeseyitan, who had rushed for over 100 yards the past two weeks, had 66 yards at the end of a first half that, considering the opponent and the stakes, had to rank among the most dominant in school history. While the offense was churning out 274 yards, the defense held the NSU — one of the LSC’s most efficient and mistake-free offensive teams — to just three first downs (one by penalty) and 13 yards on 14 running plays.
Vanderzee and junior wideout Zack Patteson hooked up on a nifty 51-yard catch-and-run on a pass over the middle to give the Tigers a 7-0 lead with 9:30 left in the opening quarter, and later in the period McCarty and offensive coordinator Rashad Jackson dipped into their bag of tricks to extend the lead.
On a first-and-10 from the NSU 38, Vanderzee handed off to Massengill, who pitched back to wideout Jason Stephenson on an apparent end around from right to left. But Stephenson — a former high school quarterback who hadn’t thrown a pass in his college career — pulled up and lofted a left-handed toss to Vanderzee. The 6-6 ECU signal-caller caught the ball at the 30, sidestepped a defender and raced down the sideline for the first receiving touchdown of his career to make it 14-0 with 31 seconds remaining in the period.
Smith got the defense on the board one play later, stepping in front of a would-be receiver in front of the NSU bench at the RiverHawk 26 and picking off his sixth pass of the season. He was convoyed down the left sideline by his defensive teammates and scored untouched to extend the lead to 21-0 just 12 seconds into the second quarter.
ECU’s second turnover of the half — a fumble by Stephenson at the Tiger 24 that was returned to the 9 by NSU defensive back Langston Jones — was converted into the only RiverHawk score of the game — a pass from Davis to Nick Whitlow one play later — with 5:12 left in the answer. But the Tigers answered with a clutch drive of their own, moving from their 9 to the NSU 21 and getting a 38-yard field goal by Berrey into a stiff wind with 21 seconds showing on the clock.
The big play on the drive was a 16-yard pass (on third-and-10) from Vanderzee to Patteson, who held onto the ball despite having his helmet knocked off by a vicious hit from NSU defensive back Nick Dobler. Patteson left the game with an apparent concussion and returned for only a couple of plays in the second half. He finished with three catches for 71 yards, all before intermission.
Although he and the offense struggled in the third quarter, Vanderzee finished with 250 yards and two touchdowns through the air on 14-of-26 passing, and he added another 67 yards receiving and rushing combined. Stephenson caught five passes for 47 yards, and Euwins added a game-high 80 yards on just two receptions.
Davis was 18-for-35 for 184 yards and two touchdowns, but he threw two interceptions (just his third and fourth of the season) and was sacked six times by a Tiger defense that recorded 10 tackles-for-loss in the win.