It wasn’t the home opener head coach Clint Conque wanted, but when the clock hit 0:00, Stephen F. Austin had withstood a late West Alabama rally to earn its first victory of the year – a 30-24 decision over the Tigers.
“We won the ballgame, but I don’t think there is anyone in our locker room that is feeling very good about it,” Conque said. “Offensively, it was a very poor performance on our part, especially in the second half. West Alabama is a very good, physical team, and we feel fortunate to escape with the win.”
A good way to sum up Saturday’s home opener would be in one word: Storm. A 95-minute lightning and heavy rain delay was the story early and an impressive performance by redshirt freshman Storm Ruiz proved to be the difference.
SFA looked to have the game firmly in hand following Trae Hart’s 75-yard punt return for a touchdown, building a 30-17 lead heading into the fourth quarter. But after the Tigers answered midway through the quarter, SFA’s offense couldn’t get the plays it needed, giving UWA one final shot at the win.
Beginning at its own nine-yard line, West Alabama moved down to the Lumberjack 18-yard line with five seconds to go as the `Jacks were able to knock down the final pass into the endzone as time expired, preserving the first win of the year.
On the night, SFA managed just 321 yards of total offense, throwing for 166 and rushing for 155. But the offensive struggles took a turn for the worse in the second half as the Lumberjacks managed just 50 total yards and three first downs in the second 30 minutes, allowing West Alabama to make its run.
Defensively, SFA was able to hold the Tigers to just seven-of-23 on third down conversions, led by nine tackles from Price Miller and seven stops from John Franklin, which included 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble for the junior on the night. In all, the Lumberjacks were able to register seven sacks against West Alabama with 10 tackles for loss.
Special teams also played a huge role in the SFA victory Saturday night, beginning with placekicker Storm Ruiz. The redshirt freshman registered 12 points on the night, going a perfect 3-for-3 on field goals, including a career long of 44 yards, with three PATs.
Hart then provided what proved to be the crucial touchdown with his 75-yard punt return in the third quarter as he registered 80 yards on three returns, giving him two punt returns of 36 yards or longer on the year.
Quarterback Zach Conque struggled against the West Alabama defensive pressure, being forced out of the pocket on nearly every play and completing just 20 of his 47 attempts for 166 yards. While it was a lackluster night for Conque, he did etch his name into the Lumberjack record book, becoming the first player in SFA program history to pass for 5,000 career yards and rush for over 1,000.
The SFA rushing game was effective at times, led by Loren Easly’s 17 carries for 89 yards and a touchdown in his season debut. Combined with Joshawa West’s 12 carries for 68 yards, the duo averaged 5.4 yards per carry on the night.
The story that overshadowed SFA’s fall camp was the significant changes weather played, and that story continued into the Lumberjacks home opener as the game was delayed 95 minutes due to lightning and heavy rain that moved through the area.
Once the game finally got underway, West Alabama drew first blood, capitalizing on a muffed punt by the Lumberjacks and using a short field to build an early 7-0 lead.
SFA then reeled off 20 unanswered points, beginning with Ruiz’s 44 yard field goal midway through the first half and followed nearly four minutes later with Easly’s five-yard touchdown scramble, giving the `Jacks the 10-7 lead after the first quarter.
A 32-yard field goal by Ruiz began the second quarter as Conque registered his 25th career rushing touchdown at the 6:48 mark, giving the `Jacks a commanding 20-7 lead. UWA would add a touchdown late in the quarter, pulling to within one score at 20-14 at halftime.
Ruiz’s third field goal of the game began the scoring in the second half for SFA, pushing the lead to 23-14 with 9:36 remaining, a score that was matched by a 48-yarder from West Alabama at the 4:56 mark. Hart’s touchdown return came just over two minutes later, setting up the dramatic fourth quarter.
Coach Conque addressed the offensive struggles in his post game press conference and knows the `Jacks will need to shore those up in a hurry as SFA opens Southland Conference play next week with a bang. SFA travels to Lake Charles, Louisiana, opening up SLC play against reigning champion McNeese at 6 p.m. Saturday, September 17th at Cowboy Stadium.