Led by an efficient Tyler Eckenrode, the No. 25 Emporia State football team erupted for its second highest scoring total on the season to overcome a pair of early turnovers and beat Washburn 55-23 in Topeka on Saturday afternoon.
The victory was ESU’s ninth of the year and its first over its arch-rival since 2003.
Both teams entered Saturday’s contest reeling from a pair of brutal losses to Missouri Western and Northwest Missouri State in the prior two weeks. The two giants atop the MIAA played each other for the conference title on Saturday in Maryville.
But at Yager Stadium, the battle was for more than mere bragging rights. A Hornet win combined with a few timely upsets kept them in the playoff discussion. Washburn was playing for any chance to play in postseason.
Emporia, it would appear, came the most prepared to play.
It wasn’t a casual stroll to the win, however. Emporia State twice fumbled away golden opportunities in the first quarter, giving its opponent extra chances.
Washburn won the coin toss and opted to go with the strong, south winds that were gusting across the field for much of the afternoon, demonstrated when the opening kickoff to the Hornets went into the jetstream and clanged off of the goalpost for a touchback.
On ESU’s second play, Eckenrode broke free for a 9-yard run that would have given the Hornets a first down, but as he was brought down, the ball popped free and was pounced on by Washburn’s Jahmil Taylor to present the Ichabods with good field position. Six plays later, running back Hayden Groves ran to the right of the pile to give Washburn a 6-0 lead, as the PAT kick was blown wide of the uprights.
The Hornets didn’t let the turnover seem to bother them as Eckenrode marched the Hornets down the field on a 13-play, nearly five-minute drive which ended when Ray Ray Davis caught a perfectly placed pass through a bevy of Washburn defenders, and ESU took the lead at 7-6.
Washburn answered Emporia State’s score with one of its own, though the Hornet defense held on a 3rd-and-5 to force the Ichabods to settle for a 30-yard field goal to retake an abbreviated lead at 9-7.
The Hornets again seemed to give away a scoring chance when Adam Schiltz, after hauling in a catch for big gain, muscled down to the Washburn 25, but the final hit to drive him down also sent the ball spinning out from his grip and bouncing to Washburn’s Jaime Myers, who then returned it back to midfield.
The Ichabods were unable to translate that into a score, but the Hornets seemed to be flirting with danger, especially after missing a field goal on their next trip down the field. Washburn, though, was now playing towards the wind, and after getting the ball backed up to its own 2, WU was forced to punt. Gusts of air dramatically thwarted any chance for the ball to carry and Emporia State set up on the Ichabod 34.
Two rushes and a pass later, and Eckenrode handed off to senior Derwin Hall who navigated around the outside, broke a tackle and led the charge down the sideline all the way into the end zone to give Emporia State a 14-9 lead.
Hall, also an All-American in the 4x100 relay, said the receivers held back the defense long enough for him to feel right at home.
“They had it blocked up and it looked like a track meet out there,” he said. “I just leaned to the left and used my speed to the best of my ability.”
That was far from the end for ESU.
The Hornets went on to score 41 unanswered points, handing Washburn its second most lopsided loss of the season.
“We knew we could move the ball if we didn’t hurt ourselves,” Schiltz said. “Hurting ourselves is what gave them the lead. Once we stopped (turning it over) we scored (41) points straight. That’s how we need to do it.”
It all began with the quarterback.
Eckenrode was the dictionary definition of efficiency, completing 26-of-30 passes for 364 yards and four touchdowns on the day.
The Hornets totalled 595 yards of offense, 408 coming through the air, against a Washburn team that entered play ranked 11th in the nation in pass efficiency defense.
“It’s a great feeling,” Eckenrode said. “(The crowd) is a rowdy bunch and it’s a tough place to play but going out like that my senior season, my last regular season game against Washburn; you couldn’t ask for anything more.”
His targets were spread out, as he had six different receivers catch multiple passes and all seven receivers had at least one catch coming for 12 or more yards.
Receiver Ray Ray Davis, coming off of a 138-yard effort at Northwest Missouri State, again provided a strong presence with 69 yards of combined offense, with the touchdown catch and a score on the ground.
“Our players were really comfortable with what we were doing in our game plan,” head coach Garin Higgins said. “They executed very well. When Tyler Eckenrode is executing, and we’re getting in a rhythm offensively, we’re tough to stop.”
Schiltz overcame the early fumble and still managed a career-high 150 yards receiving.
Austin Willis had a five-yard touchdown catch and junior Josh Klumpe, an Olpe High School graduate, had two catches, one being a 38-yard touchdown. It was his first as a Hornet.
“It was a great day all around,” Klumpe said. “We just came ready to play and everybody got involved.”
Freshman quarterback Brent Wilson, threw one pass in the fourth quarter. It was a 44-yard scoring strike to freshman receiver Dyland Walker to finish Emporia State’s scoring.
“That was just an amazing game,” Hall said. “It was cool to see guys stepping up like Klumpe and Dyland. It’s nice to see everyone contribute and having fun.”
Even with all of the seniors whose roles help carry the current team, Saturday’s play opened up a chance for a few players to audition for next season’s leaders.
“It was very exciting to see a lot of our young guys step up the way that they did,” junior right end Aaron Matthews said. “It just keeps building trust within the team and also for the future. Just the fact we can trust each other, trust in these young guys to come in there and make big plays like they did, in this environment, that was really big. That just keeps putting faith in (the returners) to believe in them.”
Though after the game, it was determined that a playoff seed was no longer an option for the Hornets (9-2), it was announced Sunday night that the Kanza Bowl would indeed be in the Hornets’ future. The postseason game, scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, November 25 at Hummer Park in Topeka, will be against Texas A&M- Kingsville (6-5) from the Lone Star Conference.
“It just goes to show you how good our senior class is,” Higgins said. “To come off the two losses that we had, to know that we had an opportunity to come in here on the road, win, and have a postseason chance.”
-The win gives Emporia State nine in a season for the first time since a 9-3 playoff berth in 2003.
-With the win, ESU moved back ahead in the all-time record against Washburn at 52-51-6. The Hornets had lost their last eight matchups against the Ichabods dating back to 2003.
-Quarterback Tyler Eckenrode threw four touchdowns to give him a season total of 24, one shy of Joe Jacobs’ single-season ESU record in 1999.
-With 48 yards receiving, senior Shjuan Richardson leapt over J.J. Richard for fourth on the single-season receiving yards list with 1,182. He would need 96 yards in the Kanza Bowl to make it past Lester McCoy’s third-place total in 1999.