By TOMMY REZAC
St. Joseph Post
It looked oh so similar to the first half of the Central Oklahoma game.
Missouri Western's defense unable to get off the field. A stop-and-start offense, and a three-possession deficit at halftime.
That's pretty much how the first half went for the Griffons against Emporia State at Spratt Stadium on Saturday.
The Hornets (2-1) got ahead 28-7 at the break, but just like the UCO game, and the Fort Hays State game for that matter, Missouri Western found its stride in the second half.
The Griffons (2-1) scored 31 second half points, including 24 unanswered, to grab a fourth quarter lead. The defense held firm in the closing minutes, giving MWSU a 38-37 win on Saturday night.
It was game that showed, once again, Missouri Western is a talented team, but a team still trying to find ways to start as well as they finish.
"If we get this team to play like that in the second half for at least another quarter," Missouri Western head coach Matt Williamson said, "we're going to be unbelievable. We have a ton of great players and we have a lot of talent."
The Griffons dug themselves an early hole after their first offensive drive, which started at the one-yard line, stalled. Emporia State sophomore Billy Ross Jr. returned a punt from Jack Rasmussen 52 yards to the house to put the Hornets ahead 7-0 with 8:12 to go in the first.
Missouri Western had the answer on the very next play from scrimmage. Sophomore quarterback Anthony Vespo found freshman running back Brandon Hall on a wide open deep route that resulted in a 42-yard touchdown. Cody Watson's point after tied the game at 7-7 with 8:08 left in the first.
A bit later in the first, Emporia State quarterback Braden Gleason got the Hornets' offense kickstarted with a 72-yard pass to freshman receiver Jaylen Varner.
Gleason then found freshman slotback Tommy Zimmerman on a six-yard touchdown to put the Hornets ahead 14-7 at the end of the first.
The second quarter was all Emporia State. The Griffons' first drive of the second ended with a turnover on downs after a failed 4th-and-1 conversion attempt.
The Hornets took immediate advantage, starting the ensuing drive at the 50. Eight plays later, Gleason found Zimmerman for a second touchdown pass - this one from 17 yards out - to put Emporia State ahead 21-7 with 11:32 left until halftime.
Missouri Western's next three offensive possessions all ended in punt. After the Griffons got pinned deep by a bad kickoff return, the Hornets took advantage of another short field, starting at their own 45, and getting on the board again with a one-yard touchdown run from sophomore Calvin Boyce.
Just like that, the Hornets were up 28-7 with 8:03 left in the first half. The Griffons' final possession of the first half started with just 37 seconds on the clock.
Vespo found freshman receiver Traveon James for a 45-yard completion to put Missouri Western in field goal range, but a 35-yard attempt by Watson sailed just wide right, ending a disappointing first half for MWSU.
"It's just...so frustrating," Williamson said. "I even said at halftime it was embarrassing what we did in that first half. I didn't rant and rave at halftime. We made adjustments, we knew the corrections that we had to do. I just walked in there and said, 'It's time for our leaders to step up and make something happen.'"
Missouri Western started the second half with the football, and immediately found a needed spark on offense.
After several hard runs by Brandon Hall, Vespo made a house call to Traveon James down the left sideline, and connected with him from 45 yards out for a touchdown - the first of James' collegiate career - to pull the Griffons to within two scores at 28-14.
After a couple of stalled drives by both teams, Emporia State snagged momentum back late in the third quarter after an interception by senior free safety Gee Stanley. Stanley caught a ball that was tipped by linebacker Jace McDown.
The Griffons' defense stood firm, as Emporia State had the ball first-and-goal at the 10. A false start and an offensive holding penalty pushed the Hornets back to the 17, and Emporia State settled for a field goal to extend their lead at 31-14 with 4:20 left in the third.
It wasn't ideal to get behind by three scores again, but Williamson says that defensive stand was likely the turning point for his team.
"That, in my opinion, is what changed the game," coach Williamson said. "That (interception) could have put us away right there."
On the ensuing drive, Vespo again went deep, this time to Cooper Burton, who caught a 48-yard pass to set the Griffons up inside the Hornets' 30.
Three plays later, Vespo found Traveon James on a 16-yard touchdown throw. James hauled it in near the boundary, and Watson missed the ensuing point-after. Still, Missouri Western was within 31-20 at the end of the third.
James had a career night with six catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns. Vespo was also stellar, completing 18-of-28 passes for 308 yards and a season-high three touchdowns.
After Emporia State's fourth punt of the second half, Missouri Western took over at its own 20. Six plays later, Brandon Hall broke free for a 42-yard touchdown run down the sideline. Hall then caught a pass in the end zone for a successful two-point conversion, making it a 31-28 ballgame with 10:32 to play.
Hall, too, had a career night with 131 yards rushing on 16 carries and a touchdown. He also had two catches for 56 yards and a score - the first receiving touchdown of his career.
Emporia State started its next drive at its own 11 after a short kick return. A false start backed the Hornets up to their own six, and a fumbled snap by Gleason rolled into the end zone. Billy Ross, Jr. tried to run it out, but the ball rolled out the back of the end zone, resulting in a Missouri Western safety.
The gap was now 31-30 with 10:17 left.
"Anytime you can score two," Williamson said, "and get the ball back and get ready to score again, it's a good feeling, and I think that kind of energized the team."
The Griffons were indeed energized, starting the next drive at the Emporia State 49 after the free kick. A 35-yard run by Hall put the Griffons in the red zone, and Travon Harris had an 11-yard carry to give the Griffons first-and-goal at the 3.
Two plays later, freshman back Shen Butler-Lawson, Jr. punched it in for his fourth touchdown of the season. Cooper Burton then ran the ball in for two more points, giving the Griffons their first lead, 38-31, with 7:57 to go.
The Hornets got the ball back with over three minutes left, and a chance to tie. Gleason led his team down the field with five completions and was aided by a defensive holding penalty.
Eventually, Gleason found Billy Ross, Jr. on a six-yard out route for a touchdown, bringing the Hornets back to within 38-37 with 1:29 left.
Emporia State elected to go for two and try for the win. Gleason again passed to Ross, Jr. in the flat, but junior safety Kobe Cummings stopped Ross, Jr. inches shy of the pylon, preserving a one-point lead for the Griffs.
Missouri Western recovered the ensuing onside kick attempt. Emporia State got the ball back deep on their own end with 22 seconds left, but achieved only one first down before time expired.
The Hornets piled up over 400 yards offense themselves. Gleason was 28-of-43 for 289 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. Ross, Jr. toted the ball 22 times for 69 yards. He also had seven grabs for 49 yards and a score.
It was another heart attack-type victory for Missouri Western, but Williamson was nothing but happy for his team by the end.
"They've got heart, they've got passion," he said. "They're just so committed. They know we can beat anybody that we line up against...the stadium was awesome. Thank you, St. Joe and thank you Missouri Western football fans. When you have a crowd like that behind you, you feel like you can just beat anybody."
Missouri Western is back on the road Saturday. They'll head to Topeka to face Washburn (2-1). Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. Coverage starts at noon on KFEQ Radio (680 AM, 95.3 FM). The Ichabods fell to Nebraska-Kearney Saturday 28-24.
"Our kids will be prepared," Williamson said. "We just have to heal up and get into treatment and heal bodies, have a good practice this week and get ready to go for next."
You can follow Tommy on Twitter @TommyKFEQ and St. Joseph Post @StJosephPost.