The Cardiac Cowboys finally let one get away.
With New Mexico Highlands trailing by just three points, Chadron State defender Cole Montgomery stepped in front of intended receiver Kevon Williams and stole the football with 15 seconds left, preserving a wild 36-33 victory for the visiting Eagles on Saturday at Perkins Stadium.
Highlands had led by 10 at halftime and by as much as 13.
But Chadron moved the ball expertly, one short pass or modest run at a time, and chipped away before finally passing the Cowboys.
NMHU (6-2 overall, 5-1 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference) now slides to second place in the league standings, tied with CSC (6-2, 5-1) and a game behind Colorado State-Pueblo (8-0, 6-0), No. 1 not only in the RMAC but in the NCAA Division II. Assuming CSUP does not otherwise stumble, Highlands will likely need to win its remaining three regular-season games, including its Nov. 2 game in Pueblo, to force its way back into a share of first place.
It didn’t have to be that way, and for most of Saturday afternoon, the Cowboys were firmly in control.
A 7-yard touchdown run by Lavelle Peterson and a 49-yard field goal by RMAC Special Teams Player of the Week Zach Tapia staked the ‘Pokes to a 10-0 lead after one period.
Chadron squared things up with a Jonn McLain TD pass to Cody Roes and a 40-yard field goal by Alex Ferdinand in the second quarter.
That tie didn’t last, as Emmanuel Lewis found John Webster from 16 yards out for a go-ahead score. And Tapia added a 42-yard field goal just six seconds before halftime to make it 20-10.
The Cowboys took their largest lead of the day, 23-10, when Tapia connected for the third time from 40 yards away with 13:25 left in the third period.
Ferdinand got the Eagles closer with a 31-yard field goal, and then McLain hooked up with Allan Schmaltz for an 18-yard strike with 1:56 left in the quarter.
Early in the final period, Tapia gave the Cowboys a bit of breathing room by booting a 38-yard field goal to get the spread back to 26-20.
At last the Eagles overtook their hosts. With 8:58 remaining, McLain completed a 12-play, 77-yard march by connecting with Chapman Ham for a 25-yard touchdown. Ferdinand’s extra point bounced off the left upright but went through for the go-ahead point and a 27-26 edge.
Highlands was unable to answer on the next series, but the Eagles got Ferdinand close enough for a 34-yarder to make it 30-26 with 4:36 to go.
Again, Chadron’s defense clamped down and forced a Highlands punt, setting the Eagles up nicely with possession and a mere 3:35 to kill.
On a third-and-four, NMHU’s Randy Salmon charged into the backfield and sacked McLain for a 7-yard loss. On the ensuing punt attempt, a botched snap sailed high, and Abdul Kanneh tackled Josh Borm at the Chadron 28, which is where the Cowboys took over on downs with 2:32 on the clock.
Three plays later, Lewis hit Williams for a 20-yard touchdown, regaining the lead.
With 1:57 remaining, NMHU led 33-30.
A pass interference penalty helped Chadron sustain the ensuing drive, and — with just 36 seconds left — McLain tossed to Schmaltz for the go-ahead score.
Ferdinand missed the extra point, however, meaning the Cowboys needed only a field goal to tie.
But two plays later, Montgomery picked off Lewis to end the threat.
NMHU had a couple of apparent touchdowns wiped away in the second half due to offensive penalties. Williams returned the opening kickoff 98 yards to the CSC end zone, but a holding penalty negated the long runback. Later, Jacobs saw a 22-yard scamper to paydirt go for naught because of another holding call.
Lewis finished 26 of 43 for 241 yards through the air plus a team-high 52 on the ground.
Tapia was 4 for 5 on field goals but missed a 41-yarder in the third quarter.
Jordan Campbell recorded 19 tackles to lead the Cowboy defense.
Jared Koster had 11.
While Chadron entered the game with a more robust rushing average, the Cowboys held the Eagles to 86 rush yards.
But McLain threw for 368 yards and four TDs on 35-for-64 passing.