By Louie Avery
Southern Arkansas University is back in the Great American Conference championship picture after beating defending champion Harding University for the first time in 12 years Saturday night at Rip Powell Field.
Junior Barrett Renner threw four touchdown passes and DeMarcus Pegue, a red-shirt freshman linebacker from Liberty-Eylau contribued eight tackles on defense as Southern Arkansas rebounded from last week’s season opening loss to Arkansas Tech.
A crowd of 6,735 witnessed the Muleriders’ 35-24 victory over Harding, which had not lost to SAU in Magnolia since 1991. SAU is now 1-1 on the season, while the Bison fall to 0-2.
“I knew we’d beat Harding, we’ve had a couple of other opportunities,” said SAU coach Bill Keopple, who had lost eight straight to the Bison. “Harding is a very good football team. This game had a great atmosphere and the feel of a great win. How about that?”
SAU took the game’s opening kickoff and drove inside the Bison 1 before being pushed back. The Muleriders failed to score, but did light up the scoreboard seconds later when Antonio Washington, a freshman from Marshall, Texas, blocked a Harding punt. Davondrick Lison of McGehee, Ark., scooped up the ball and scored from two yards out with 5:47 left in the first quarter.
Southern Arkansas never trailed in game
Harding would never lead in the game. Still, the Muleriders only led 14-10 at intermission. Southern Arkansas pulled away in the third quarter on touchdown passes from Renner to Karonce Higgins and Tanner Hudson, who finished the game with six catches for 53 yards and three touchdowns.
“We’ve got a good football team this year, but we’re young,” Keopple said. “You just know what’s going to happen until you go out and play. We’ve definitely still got a chance to win it all. I can’t see Arkansas Tech going through this conference unbeaten. There’s just too much balance in this league.”
Renner, who is rewriting the SAU record book in the passing categories, finished 21-of 32 for 210 yards. Hudson’s third TD reception made it 35-10 with 13:03 left to play.
Harding refused to quit, scoring twice in the final 9:10 on a 16-yard touchdown run by Brandon Gates, and a 25-yard TD catch by Bobby Green from Terrence Dingle.
Pegue, who returned to school after a tragic accident earlier this year, wasn’t surprised by the Muleriders’ win.
“We believed in the coach’s game plan and executed the best we could; It was all about being focused and ready to play,” said Pegue, who led SAU with six tackles in the first half. “Believing in God, keeping faith and having good friends got me through my accident. All you can do is pray for the other family.”
Southern Arkansas will be at home next Saturday against Southwestern State Oklahoma.