MAGNOLIA -- It's becoming perilous for opposing offenses to attempt passes against the Harding University defense.
The Bisons defeated the Southern Arkansas Muleriders 31-0 Saturday night, their second consecutive shutout in Great American Conference play, and their pass defense once again played an integral part.
Senior free safety Jacory Nichols returned one third-quarter interception 60 yards for a touchdown, and strong safety Cade Pugh returned another intercepted pass 36 yards for a score -- in a span of 40 seconds -- giving the Bisons three touchdowns via interception return in two games.
Junior Cory Batie, who returned 2 interceptions for 152 yards during last week's 24-0 victory over Arkansas-Monticello, didn't partake in the interception festival Saturday night at Wilkins Stadium.
Harding (2-1 and ranked No. 23 in the AFCA Top 25 poll) has not allowed a point since losing its season-opener 16-14 to Ouachita Baptist on Sept. 5.
Harding didn't dominate as much statistically -- outgaining SAU 299-175 -- as it did physically, building a 10-0 halftime lead before scoring 21 third-quarter points.
SAU quarterback Hayden Mallory (8-20 passing, 121 yards, 3 interceptions) was replaced by Tristan Smith after suffering back-to-back third-quarter interceptions that were returned for Harding touchdowns.
Pugh's interception and return of a tipped Mallory pass made it 31-0 Harding with 4:31 to play in the third quarter.
Harding's offense, which accounted for 17 of the Bisons' points, had run more than twice as many plays (39 to 14) and had outgained SAU 212-41 before Nichols' 60-yard interception return put the Bisons up 24-0 with 5:11 to go in the third quarter.
Nichols' interception return for touchdown, the second in two games for Harding, came when Nichols stepped in front of Mallory's floating attempt to Jared Lancaster at the SAU 40.
Nichols, 5-6, 150 pounds, raced untouched through traffic to the end zone.
Harding, which led 10-0 at halftime, put together its most impressive drive on the night in the third quarter after a missed field goal by Austin Wilkerson gave the Bisons the ball at their 30 with 10:56 to play in the third quarter.
SAU never drove inside the Harding 30.
A mix of up-the-gut runs by fullback Cole Chancey set up two big plays by quarterback Preston Paden.
A 27-yard keeper by Paden, after taking the ball out of Chancey's belly, gave Harding a first down at the Southern Arkansas 27.
Chancey's 6-run moved the ball to the SAU 21, and Paden took it from there, cutting against the grain of the SAU defense for a 21-yard touchdown run with 7:28 to play in the third quarter. Harding's 6-play, 70-yard drive took 3:28, and it was 17-0 after Grant Ennis' extra point.
SAU, stymied from the start, took the second-half kickoff and drove 45 yards in 9 plays to reach the Harding 31, its deepest drive to that point.
Mallory completed 2 passes for 32 yards on the drive, and a 15-yard personal foul on Harding helped put the ball in field-goal range.
The drive stalled at the Harding 30, and Coach Bill Keopple sent in kicker Wilkerson, the hero of last Saturday's last-second victory over Oklahoma Baptist.
Wilkerson's 47-yard field-goal attempt was plenty long, but it drifted just wide with 10:56 to play in the third quarter.
The Bisons put the game away with three touchdowns, two on interception returns, in a span of 3:57 in the third quarter.
Harding, which accumulated 152 yards of interception returns against UAM, added another 96 on 3 interceptions Saturday night.
Harding led 10-0 at halftime after controlling the ball for 22:02 of the game's first 30 minutes.
The Bisons ran twice as many plays (34 to 17) and totaled 80 more yards than the Muleriders (132 to 52).
Harding held the ball for 12 plays and 7:13 to start the game, but gave it back to SAU when Paden fumbled the snap on 4th and 2 at the SAU 30.
The Muleriders gave it right back when Harding's Ryan Robertson recovered a fumble by Lancaster on a shuttle pass from Mallory on SAU's first offensive play.
Harding moved 20 yards in 8 plays, but scored on a 28-yard field goal by Ennis with 3:08 to play in the first quarter.
Harding opened the game by possessing the ball for 20 plays and 11:46; SAU ran 1 play and used :06.
The Muleriders' only first down of the first quarter came on a pass-interference penalty, but SAU was forced to punt from the Harding 47, and Alfonso Deleon's 12-yard shank gave Harding the ball at its 35.
That set up Harding's only touchdown drive of the half, covering 10 plays and 65 yards, ending with a 21-yard run by Tristan Tucker after a nifty pitch from Paden on 4th and 2 from the SAU 21.
SAU defenders collapsed on Paden, who barely got the ball into Tucker's hands, and he zigzagged through the SAU defense to complete a drive that consumed 5:45 and ended with 9:05 to play in the half.
Henderson State 27,
Arkansas Tech 21
Logan Moragne ran 11 times for 118 yards, including a 72-yard touchdown in the third quarter, as Henderson State held off Arkansas Tech at Carpenter-Haygood Stadium in Arkadelphia.
Henderson State held Tech to a minus 2 total yards in the fourth quarter, allowing the Reddies (3-0) to escape with the victory. Tech turned the ball over on downs at its own 16 with 1:21 remaining. A 16-yard sack of Tech's Manny Harris by Antoine Roshell on second-and-3 effectively killed the Wonder Boys chances.
Henderson quarterback Richard Stammetti completed 24 of 39 passes for 247 yards. He threw an 8-yard scoring pass to Doug Johnson with 6:25 left in the first quarter.
Querale Hall ran for 72 yards and scored on a 3-yard run for the Reddies. Temo Martinez kicked field goals of 40 and 22 yards.
SW Oklahoma St. 9
Arkansas-Monticello scored 21 points in the first 3:48 of the fourth quarter to put Southwestern Oklahoma away at Cotton Boll Stadium in Monticello.
Leading 17-9 at the start of the fourth quarter, Boll Weevils quarterback Caleb Canady connected with C.J. Parham for a 14-yard TD pass at the 13:59 mark to cap an eight-play, 67-yard drive.
Southwestern's following two drives ended with interceptions. Christian Jefferson returned an interception 19 yards to the Southwestern 28, setting up Logan Penn's 2-yard TD run with 11:29 showing. One play after the ensuing kickoff, Tyronne Brumfield returned an interception 34 yards for a touchdown.
UAM rushed for 348 yards. Devontae Dean led the Weevils with 121 yards on 18 attempts, while Alex Day ran 12 times for 92 yards.
The Weevils scored three rushing touchdowns -- a 3-yard run from Stephen King on the first play of the second quarter, Penn's 2-yard run and Demilon Brown's 6-yard run with 5:17 remaining in the game.Sports on 09/22/2019
Print Headline: Interceptions key in Harding victory