ELLENSBURG (Oct. 12) -- Freshman Sean McDonald (Sammamish/Skyline HS) kicked the 44-yard game-winning field goal with one second remaining, and redshirt freshman wide receiver Jesse Zalk (Battle Ground/Prairie HS) finished with 14 catches for 104 yards as the Central Washington University football team rallied from a 17-3 halftime deficit to defeat Dixie State University, 27-24, on Saturday afternoon at Tomlinson Stadium.
The Wildcats improved to 4-2 overall and 4-1 in Great Northwest Athletic Conference play, while Dixie State fell to 2-4 overall and 2-3 in the conference.
McDonald, who had attempted just one field goal on the season prior to Saturday, made both of his three-point attempts against the Red Storm. He booted a 34-yard field goal on the opening play of the second quarter to give the Wildcats their first points of the game, before scoring the game-winning kick in the closing seconds.
Meanwhile, Zalk had one of the best receiving performances in recent memory for CWU. His 14 receptions were the most since 2005 -- and tied for the third-highest single-game total in school history -- while he accumulated his first career 100-yard receiving game. In addition, he netted 113 kick return yards on three returns.
"Jesse had a great game and he is a competitor," CWU head coach John Picha explained. "I think the thing that some people don't understand is these guys are all pretty young. For the most part, these guys are just now kind of figuring out the college game and you can see them getting better each week and it is a patient process."
Patience is something the Wildcats had to experience first-hand on the scoreboard on Saturday. CWU was tied, or trailed, until the final second, as it fell behind 3-0 on a field goal on Dixie State's opening possession. The Red Storm then extended the lead to 10-0 with a nine-play, 99-yard drive after capitalizing on a Wildcat fumble at the DSU 1. Dixie State then pushed its advantage to 17-3 at halftime as they accumulated 324 first-half yards -- 42 more yards than CWU was allowing per game entering the contest.
The second half was a different story, however. The Wildcat defense held Dixie State to 26 offensive plays (and just 155 yards) after the intermission while its offensive teammates totaled 211 yards including 14 of 18 passing from redshirt freshman Jake Nelson (Lake Stevens) over the final 30 minutes of play.
CWU chipped away at its deficit, with sophomore Jordan Todd (Bellevue/Interlake HS) scoring on a four-yard run for the only points of the third quarter, and Nelson then picked up his first collegiate points on a 13-yard scamper early in the fourth as the Wildcats tied the game at 17-17.
Dixie State, which came into play leading the GNAC in total offense and finished with 479 yards on Saturday, responded on its next series with a 23-yard scoring pass from Griff Robles to Mitch Frei to give the Red Storm a seven-point lead.
Two series later, CWU methodically marched its way down the field for the tying score. A 12-play, 45-yard drive that consumed nearly six minutes of game clock was finished off by a seven-yard touchdown pass from Nelson to Zalk with 2:28 left, and McDonald's extra point knotted the score once again at 24-all.
The Wildcats then forced Dixie State into a three-and-out, allowing just five yards on a Robles carry and two incompletions. Nelson then used a pair of completions to Zalk, totaling 34 yards, as well as two carries by Todd in the amount of 11 yards, to go down the field and set the stage for McDonald's heroics. The freshman then drilled the 44-yard field goal attempt from the right hash mark, sending the Homecoming crowd into pandemonium and giving CWU the lead with one second left.
Todd and Zalk accumulated a good percentage of the Wildcats' offensive yardage which, at 341 yards, was the team's second-highest single-game total of the year. Todd logged 121 rushing yards to complement Zalk's 104 receiving yards.
Nelson completed a career-best 23 of 32 passes for 192 yards and the game-tying touchdown to Zalk. He also ran for 28 yards.
Dixie State was keyed by Robles, who was 23 of 43 for 362 yards and two touchdowns. Myles Burton posted a 100-yard rushing game with 106 net yards, while two Red Storm receivers -- Frei (six receptions, 159 yards) and Joe Don Duncan (seven catches, 150 yards) -- combined for 309 receiving yards. Jake Duncan led all players with 16 tackles and K.J. Boyer was credited with three tackles for loss to lead the DSU defense.
The CWU defense was led by senior Riley Wall (Olympia/Capital HS), who had seven tackles. Seven Wildcat players finished with at least four tackles.
The Wildcats will return to the road to open the second half of GNAC play next weekend, visiting Simon Fraser University in a 2 p.m. kickoff on Saturday, Oct. 19, in Burnaby, British Columbia. CWU then plays back-to-back home games on Oct. 26 and Nov. 2 against Azusa Pacific University and Humboldt State University, respectively.