By Kenneth Mister/Delta Democrat Times
CLEVELAND — Dwight Tillman’s heart raced.
Not because his Delta State team won their fourth Gulf South Conference title in the last five years, but because it almost didn’t happen.
“I was on the sideline, heart beating fast…,” said the senior cornerback who witnessed West Alabama mount a 34-6 run before dropping a 36-34 decision to the Statesmen in front of announced homecoming crowd of 8,522.
Tillman’s 40-yard interception return touchdown gave DSU (9-1, 3-0 GSC) a 30-0 lead, but not much went right for the Statesmen after that. The Tigers (7-3, 2-2 GSC) outscored DSU 27-6 in the second half, but failed to convert a two-point conversion with over one minute left that would have tied the game.
“I guess we lost focus,” said DSU quarterback Micah Davis, “and that’s one thing coach (Ron) Roberts preaches on and we can’t do that.”
DSU’s biggest problems came from UWA’s smallest player: Kyle Caldwell, a 5-foot-7, 149-pound quarterback who started the year third on the depth chart. He did most of his damage on the ground with 88 rushing yards, but he couldn’t convert a Hail Mary pass as time expired.
“I didn’t think he was going to be that good when we saw him on film,” Tiny said of the tiny quarterback who finished 13 of 33 for 157 and two interceptions. “He played his heart out.”
DSU rushed for just 39 yards, but Davis threw for 272 yards and two touchdowns with three interceptions. His TD passes came on a 6-yard pass to Chance Dennis and a 36-yard strike to Carlton Ollie. DSU’s first score came on an 8-yard reverse by receiver Bill Franks.
With a 36-7 third quarter lead the Statesmen looked like the No.1-ranked team they are. But two Matthew Willis rushing TDs and a 27-yard TD scamper from Caldwell put DSU on their heels. Then a 27-yard TD run by Don Smith made the unthinkable possible. Tillman, however, knocked down a two-point conversion pass to keep Statesmen ahead.
Said coach Roberts, “We knew they wouldn’t give up, we knew they would fight to the bitter end.”
The win likely secures the Statesmen a first-round bye in the Division-II playoffs, which kick off Nov. 19. DSU will close out their season next Saturday, Nov. 12, at West Georgia.
Like most of DSU’s wins all season, this one came down to the wire – something Tillman said they need to keep from happening going forward.
“We have to learn to stay focused,” he said.
But all that matters, said Davis, is the final score. The senior quarterback, a Harlon Hill Trophy candidate, won his second conference title.
“I get my second ring,” he said. “I’m excited about that.”