West Texas A&M outguns Washburn in aerial assault

The odds were stacked against Washburn in its playoff game at undefeated West Texas A&M, but the Ichabods still came within one point, and 2:27, of pulling off a big first-round upset.

The 11-0 Buffaloes are ranked No. 4 in the country and drew the No. 3 spot in the Southwest region. The Bods jumped into the playoffs at the last second, grabbing the No. 6 seed after winning their last two games and finishing second in the MIAA.

Both teams put up their usual high scores in a 40-39 shootout despite a slow start offensively. WTAMU, known for its pass-happy offense, was shut out in the first half by an impressive Washburn defense.

“Our defense played real well in the first half,” said senior wide receiver Jake Lebahn. “Their offense didn’t really get going until later in the second half.”

The Buffaloes run an air raid offense, similar to Texas Tech’s, where as many as five receivers line up and challenge the opponents’ secondary with deep bombs downfield. The WTAMU passing game is usually capable of outscoring most WNBA teams, but the offense was held to just 113 first-half yards in Saturday’s game.

“We did a good job of getting turnovers early in the game,” said Lebahn.

While the Washburn defense forced four turnovers and four punts in the first half, the offense built a 14-0 lead going into halftime. The first Bod touchdown came with 6:00 left in the first quarter on a 1-yard run by Eric Butler. Senior Jordan Brill connected for one of his six completions to Lebahn to set up the game’s first score.

The game stayed 7-0 until the last nine seconds of the first half when Brill again hit Lebahn, this time for a 19-yard touchdown.

“Our offense played decent in the first half,” said Lebahn. “We were playing pretty well overall, offense and defense, early in the game.”

It looked like the Buffaloes would make it a one-score game after returning the opening second-half kickoff to the Washburn 16, but the defense forced three straight incompletions and held WTAMU to a field goal. The Bods continued to build up their lead by scoring on Brad Cole’s 26-yard reception on the following offensive possession.

However, the Buffalo offense finally woke up midway through the third quarter, as quarterback Keith Null threw the first of his six passing touchdowns. Washburn still led 21-9 after a failed two-point conversion, but once Null got rolling, there was little the Bods, or anyone else in the nation, could have done to stop him.

“Their offense is so potent,” said Lebahn. “They usually average about 40 points a game. They were just too hard to stop once they got going in the second half.”

The game was suddenly close again when Null completed a 79-yard touchdown pass on the next Buffalo drive. A 30-yard rush by Ra’Shawn Mosley put Washburn back up by two scores, and a two-point conversion made it 29-15. Mosely’s touchdown made it look like the game was headed for a back-and-forth finish, but the breaks went WTAMU’s way from there on out.

Null’s third and fourth touchdown passes brought the Buffaloes within one point at the end of the third quarter. The WTAMU quarterback made his last mistake of the day early in the fourth when he threw an interception that was returned 27 yards for a touchdown by linebacker Michael Wilhoite, giving Washburn a 36-28 lead.

WTAMU scored two touchdowns in the game’s last eight minutes, while Washburn answered only with one field goal. Brill was forced to leave the game with an ankle injury in the fourth quarter, and when the senior quarterback left the field for the last time so did any chance of the Bods holding on for a win. Null won what was a tight battle between the two quarterbacks, giving WTAMU the lead for the first time with 2:27 remaining and scoring the Buffaloes’ last 12 points through the air.

“It’s a tough loss because we felt like we were the better team for most of the game,” said Lebahn, who had 119 yards receiving in his last game as an Ichabod. “The doctors haven’t had a good chance to look at [Brill’s] ankle yet, but he hurt it pretty bad.”

While the loss is difficult to handle for Brill and Lebahn in their last college games, the two offensive leaders realize how much Ichabod football has improved since they arrived at Washburn.

“My first year, we had a losing record,” said Lebahn. “Then we made the Mineral Water Bowl, and now we’ve been in the playoffs two of the last three years. Things are looking up for the Ichabod program.”