For a fourth time this season, Emporia State lost a game by seven or less after scoring at least 28 as No. 22 Nebraska-Kearney used a 35-0 scoring streak to upend the Hornets 42-35 at Welch Stadium Saturday afternoon.

If it weren’t so aggravating, it might be comical.

But the frustration was palpable after the game as players and coaches alike battled to come to terms with yet another gut-wrenching loss.

“I don’t got much to say,” said junior linebacker Dawson Hammes, who led the Hornets with nine tackles. “It hurts. Everyone hurts.”

To add to the disappointment, Emporia State (3-4) outgained Nebraska-Kearney (6-1) 609-518 and built up a 21-7 lead in the second quarter. But the Hornet offense fell into a lull to open the second half and the defense gave up several big plays, allowing the Lopers to score 35 unanswered points from the 5:46 mark of the second quarter to the 9:14 mark of the fourth and flip a 21-7 deficit into a 42-21 lead.

“The thing that really hurt us was just the big plays, so many guys just running open down the field,” said Hornet head coach Garin Higgins. “We talked all week about being disciplined with your eyes and focusing in on what you need to, your keys. I don’t know. We’ve got to get that stuff corrected. We’ve got to figure out a way.”

Nebraska-Kearney quarterback T.J. Davis completed just 12 passes but they went for 306 yards and three touchdowns. Wide receiver A.J. McPhee also tossed a 37-yard score on a trick play.

“We’ve just got to eliminate the big plays,” Hammes said. “That’s been our issue all year, I believe. We’ve just got to stay disciplined back there and stay together.”

But despite falling behind by three scores, the Hornets didn’t surrender without a fight. Canaan Brooks scored on a 7-yard carry with 7:07 left in the game and sophomore quarterback Braden Gleason threw an 11-yard TD pass to Corey Thomas with 58 seconds on the clock.

“After the touchdown, I didn’t get too hyped or anything,” Thomas said. “I’ve been here long enough to know that I needed to make the next one.”

And he did. Thomas recovered the ensuing onside kick, giving Emporia State a chance to tie the game in the final minute.

“The guys around me did the right thing,” he said. “They hit two people, I see the ball split and I just jumped on it.”

While the Hornets were unable to add a third fourth-quarter touchdown to force overtime, Thomas said it took a good deal of resilience to make the comeback effort they did, particularly after being held scoreless for more than 30 minutes of game time.

“Mental toughness is part of our DNA here,” he said. “That’s what we preach every day. And this team will never give up.”

One of the most often repeated refrains around the Emporia State program this season has addressed the need to play a full four quarters every game. The Hornets have never been blown out and they put up a lot of points and yards, but it’s the offensive and defensive lapses that have them sitting below .500, a record that distorts the reality of their ability.

“It is tough right now,” Higgins said. “Everybody is frustrated. We know we are a good football team. We lost another close game and it begins to take its toll on you. … It’s just so many plays throughout the course of the season that could be different, but they’re not and we can’t do anything about it so we’ve just got to continue to move forward.”

NOT FOR LACK OF YARDAGE

For the second straight week, Emporia State rolled up more than 600 yards of offense in a losing effort. This time around, the approach was much more balanced as the Hornets passed for 371 yards and ran for 238.

Transfer running back Canaan Brooks posted a career-high with 151 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries in the game.

“It really just comes down to my offensive line being dominant today,” Brooks said. “Those guys put in an insane amount of work during the week, watching extra film, and it really showed today. They were dominant start-to-finish.”

After a historic performance last week, Gleason went 37-of-62 for 371 yards and two TDs while adding 19 rushing yards on four attempts.

Yet for all of the video game statistics, the Hornet offense came out stale in the second half and didn’t get into a rhythm until it was too late.

Higgins said he didn’t think Nebraska-Kearney made any defensive adjustments at halftime and that Emporia State’s offensive struggles in the third quarter were mostly self-imposed.

“We need to do better on first down,” he said. “We were in too many second-and-longs and I probably made some calls on second-and-long that I’d like to have had back too as well. You’re trying to force it a little bit just because you’re down.”

But Brooks said the team wouldn’t be hanging its head for long.

“Twenty-four-hour rule,” he said. “We’ll come in tomorrow, watch the film, learn from this loss and after 24 hours, we’ve got to put it behind us and begin to prepare for the next opponent.”

UP NEXT

Emporia State will host Missouri Southern for homecoming at 2 p.m. next Saturday. The Lions are 3-4 this season after handling Lincoln 52-32 to pick up their first home win since 2018 on Saturday.

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