The East Central University football team did not win the statistical battle against Arkansas-Monticello Saturday night inside Koi Ishto Stadium.
But the Tigers got the victory where it matters most — the scoreboard.
ECU used a fourth-quarter pick-6 from junior linebacker Jamil Young to go ahead for good and held off a late UAM rally for a 29-27 victory over the Boll Weevils.
Both teams are now 1-2 on the season.
It was the first win for East Central under first-year head coach Al Johnson and the first time Tiger fans were treated to a victory at Norris Field since Oct. 31, 2015, when ECU defeated Monticello 21-18.
“It’s hard to find the words to put into how that went down. To get a win and to think about those (seniors) to have to go three years without a win at home made it that much more meaningful,” Johnson said after the game.
A look at the stat sheet tells a different story:
• Monticello had 26 first downs, compared to eight for the Tigers.
• The Boll Weevils rushed for 152 yards, while ECU ended up with minus 44 yards rushing. Most of that ugly total was the results of six quarterback sacks by the visitors.
• UAM completed 19-of-38 passes for 324 yards, compared to a 15-of-26 effort by ECU for 194 yards.
• Monticello had a huge 476-150 advantage in total offense.
• The Boll Weevils also had a huge advantage in time of possession, 43:43 to 28:52.
“By no means did we play a perfect game. Our offense has a long way to go, and we have to clean up a lot of things,” Johnson said.
However, East Central helped for six UAM turnovers, and the Tigers had zero.
The Tigers made stop after stop when Monticello was in ECU territory.
“I could not be more proud of the way (our defense) played. They played every single play for each other and took no plays off. And no matter what situation they were put in ... they fought through it,” Johnson said.
Johnson also gave props to ECU’s special teams players.
“Our special teams bounced back incredibly well. Out punt team did a great job and our kickoff coverage team — which gave up two long runs and a touchdown last week — did a much better job today,” he said.
The Tigers looked like they might run away with the victory after bolting to a 20-0 lead.
ECU senior safety Jonathan Mendez intercepted UAM quarterback Cole Sears’ first pass attempt of the night and returned it 29 yards to the 3-yard line.
ECU then scored on its second offensive play when quarterback RayJohn Austin-Ramsey — making his first start of the 2018 season in place of David Cornwell — tossed the ball Dilland Gardner’s way. The junior tight end tipped the ball in the air but came down with it anyway for a 7-yard TD reception, and a Bobby Schmidt kick put ECU on top 7-0 at the 13:24 mark of the first period.
The Tigers turned another turnover into points early in the second quarter.
Cameron Jones, a redshirt freshman from Sulphur, recovered a fumble during a punt return to set up the Tigers at the UAM 21.
Senior wideout Trinity Benson rushed 16 yards to the five and later scored on a 2-yard run that helped extend the ECU lead to 14-0 at the 12:22 mark of the second quarter. It was Benson’s six touchdown (three rushing and three receiving) of the young season.
The senior from Lewisville, Texas, was elated after the game.
“It feels great. We all preached on staying focused and to keep working hard and it was going to pay off, and it finally did,” he said.
“I’ve been having big games,” he admitted. “But I can’t do it without my quarterback and the O-line. If they don’t do what they do, I can’t do what I do.”
Later in the second, ECU faced a 1st-and-21 play from its own 13 after a penalty.
Austin-Ramsey quickly tossed the ball to running back Reuben Armstrong, who made one defender miss and bolted 87 yards untouched down the far sideline for a touchdown. The Boll Weevils blocked the PAT kick, but ECU appeared to be in command with a 20-0 lead with 8:05 left in the second period.
Monticello refused to go away.
Sears found DeAndre Washington open for a 67-yard TD catch and run to get the Weevils within 20-7.
On the next UAM possession, Sears scrambled for 32 yards before connecting with receiver CJ Parham for a 47-yard gain. After Sears snuck into the end zone from the 1, ECU’s advantage had been cut to 20-14 by halftime.
Late in the third quarter, Monticello went 90 yards in 14 plays. That drive was capped by a 13-yard TD toss to Washington. Josh Marini’s PAT gave the visitors a 21-20 lead at the 2:52 mark of the third quarter.
That score set up a tense fourth period.
Young’s 30-yard interception return with 12:05 left in the final quarter put ECU back on top 26-21. On the ensuing two-point try, Cornell — who replaced Austin-Ramsey — couldn’t connect with Benson in the end zone.
The Boll Weevils coughed up the ball on special teams for the second time — via a fumble recovery by ECU’s Matt Champman — midway through the fourth quarter. That big play set up a 36-yard Schmidt field goal that boosted the Tiger lead to 29-21 with 7:33 to play.
Monticello struck again after a 2-yard TD run by tailback Juan Day, but the two-point pass attempt that would have tied the game was stuffed by the Tiger defense, leaving the hosts ahead 29-27 with 3:49 remaining.
The Boll Weevils forced the Tigers to punt on its next possession, and sophomore Jack Preston got off a beauty that hit and rolled all the way down to the UAM 4 for a 66-yard kick.
Senior defensive end Andre Shelton recovered a fumble at the UAM 36 that all but ended the Monticello comeback bid.
“I’m very proud of our team. That is such a different team than the one that left the field at Southern Nazarene last week,” Johnson said.
“It truly was an amazing game that I and this team will remember a long time,” he continued. “I hope it will be a catalyst for our season. But the only people that will decide that is our guys in that locker room.”
The Tigers are back on the road this weekend, traveling to Arkadelphia, Arkansas, to battle host Ouachita Baptist. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Cliff Harris Stadium.