The Lincoln Blue Tigers had the odds stacked against them Saturday at Dwight T. Reed Stadium.
The Blue Tigers entered the Senior Day contest against the seventh-ranked Central Missouri Mules with 38 available players.
Considering the circumstances, the 63-27 loss is not near as bad as it could’ve been.
“It wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been,” Lincoln coach Jermaine Gales said. “I have to give credit to my guys, all 38 of them. They fought hard, they fought ‘til the end and that was the message this week.”
The Mules took care of business in the first half to allow their backups to play the final two quarters.
Central Missouri only had one first-half possession not finish with a touchdown and tallied 485 total yards before intermission.
Marcellous Hawkins scored the first two touchdowns for the Mules, running in a 6-yard score on the opening drive and a 1-yard run two drives later to jump out to a 14-0 lead with 4:48 left in the first.
Quarterback Zach Zebrowksi added three touchdown passes before the break, tossing a 4-yard touchdown to Demarcus Gregory, a 22-yard score to Jack Popisil and a 2-yarder to Grant McAtee.
Weston Bridges added an 18-yard touchdown run to account for Central Missouri’s 42 first-half points.
“It’s an offensive juggernaut,” Gales said. “They can basically pick how they want to kill you. They can kill you on the ground or they can kill you through the air.”
On the other side, Lincoln’s offense struggled against the Mules’ first-string defense.
The Blue Tigers went three-and-out on four of their seven drives in the first half.
Lincoln did put together a productive drive early in the second quarter, driving 63 yards in nine plays, but the possession ended with a Mo Alwaely 24-yard field goal after the drive stalled out in the red zone.
“That was very frustrating because we have to capitalize on red zone trips,” Gales said. “We have to get some sort of points out of the deal, and too many times this season we got down in the red zone and came up short.”
Entering the break, Central Missouri held a 42-3 lead.
It was a much better showing for the Blue Tigers in the second half as they outscored the Mules’ backups 24-21.
Bridges opened the third with a 5-yard touchdown run to extend the lead to 49-3, and then Lincoln started getting its seniors involved in their final game.
Omar Allen, an Arkansas-Pine Bluff transfer in his second season with the Blue Tigers, broke loose for a 41-yard touchdown run on the following drive.
It was Allen’s first touchdown in a Lincoln uniform.
“I was very excited,” Gales said. “I just wanted to see him cross that line one time before he leaves, and he just happened to do it today.”
The Mules responded with a 17-yard touchdown pass from Mac Harper to Cedric Case, and Lincoln used a short field to get back on the board with an Alwaely 42-yard field goal to make the score 56-13 with 13:30 left.
Following a Central Missouri three-and-out, Xzavier Vaughn hit senior wideout Aderias Ealy, also playing in his final game with the Blue Tigers, on a slant for a 5-yard score.
Ealy was not done yet. He responded to the Mules’ final touchdown -- a 5-yard run by Christian Davis -- with a 69-yard touchdown reception from Vaughn to create the final margin with 2:43 left.
In Ealy’s three seasons with Lincoln, he finished with 83 catches for 1,512 yards and 16 touchdowns.
“He’s a special talent,” Gales said. “He did what he does routinely. … He just went out and did Aderias Ealy stuff.”
Zebrowksi finished 28-of-38 passing for 324 yards and three touchdowns to lead Central Missouri (10-1). Keyon Butler led the rushing game with 10 rushes for 133 yards and Arkell Smith had five catches for 100 yards.
Vaughn completed 11-of-26 passes for Lincoln (0-11) with 209 yards and two touchdowns, Allen had 90 rushing yards and a touchdown on 17 attempts and Ealy caught four passes for 134 yards and two scores.
Saturday marked the end of the road for the Blue Tigers’ five seniors out of eligibility: Ealy, Allen, Ruben Saravia, Tyler Geide and Ishaq Robinson.
The resiliency of the group sticking with the program despite never winning a game is what Gales is going to remember most about them.
“What they brought to this program was a toughness that no one can understand,” he said. “To be here for two years, (Ealy) for three years, to be here and not have very much success. To stick with me throughout this transition and be here today, that’s a toughness that you can’t describe. That’s what I will remember about those kids, they are resilient.”