MAGNOLIA, Ark. – Harding University coach Paul Simmons told Austin Toler and his teammates a win at Southern Arkansas University could put them in the national playoffs.
The Bison (2-1) dominated SAU in every phase of the game Saturday night at Rip Powell Field, handing the Muleriders their first home loss in four years, 31-0. SAU beat Harding in 2017 and 2018, but the Bison went to the playoffs both years.
“We knew going in this was a game we had to win since we lost at Ouachita Baptist,” said Toler, a starter on Pleasant Grove’s 2017 state championship team. “Coach said if we won we could go to the playoffs, but if we lost, who knows?”
Harding has bounced back from its heart-breaking loss to OBU to shutout the University of Arkansas-Monticello, 24-0, and now SAU. The Bison wing-t offense was led by quarterback Preston Paden, with flawless execution. On the other side, the Muleriders turned the ball over four times, managing only 175 total yards (62 on the ground).
It was only 10-0 at halftime. The Bison scored late in the first quarter on a 28-yard field goal by Grant Ennis. Running back Tristan Tucker added a 20-yard touchdown in the second period on a fourth-and-1 play.
Led by Dylan Hendricks, Chris Wein, Jacory Nichols and Patrick Healy, the Harding defense was outstanding. SAU never got inside the Bison 30, missing a 47-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter.
Interceptions seal victory for Harding
The final two touchdowns in the game came on interceptions, with Nichols and Cade Pugh returning the pass thefts for six points.
The Harding running game was so dominant it didn’t have to pass. Paden only threw one pass in the game and it was incomplete. He also only threw one pass in last week’s win over the Boll Weevils.
Paden led the Bison ground game with 80 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. Cole Chancey gained 65 yards on 14 carries, and Harding finished with 299 yards.
Toler entered the game in the fourth quarter at left guard.
Harding controlled the clock in all four quarters, 38:22 to 21:38. The Bison also dominated the kicking game with punter Cameron Scott averaging 53.5 on two punts. SAU averaged 29 yards on five punts. Malik Preston led the Muleriders’ defense with 12 tackles. Safety Stacy Lawrence and Demetric Jennings had nine tackles each.
In other Great American Conference games Saturday, No. 4 Ouachita Baptist beat Northwestern Oklahoma, 31-11, while Henderson State defeated Arkansas Tech, 27-21. UA-Monticello routed Southwestern Oklahoma, 44-9. East Central Oklahoma whipped Southern Nazarene, 45-7, while Oklahoma Baptist edged Southeastern Oklahoma, 34-31.
SAU (2-1) travels to Russellville next Saturday to play Arkansas Tech. Harding will host Henderson State.