Prairie View A&M's path to the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game was well in sight during the closing seconds against Alabama A&M.
The Panthers had possession at their own 7-yard line and trailed by two with 1:23 remaining. A field goal would likely put them ahead for good and provide a dream ending.
But that dream died two plays later.
Freshman quarterback Jerry Lovelocke was sacked and had the ball stripped by Bulldogs defensive end Corey Hart, who recovered it at the Prairie View 7 to send the Panthers to a 17-15 season-ending loss before a homecoming crowd of 10,500 Saturday afternoon at Blackshear Stadium.
Prairie View (5-6, 5-4) fell one win short of clinching the SWAC Western Division title and earning a spot in the Dec. 10 league championship game in Birmingham, Ala. Alabama A&M (8-3, 7-2) won the Eastern Division title and will face either Grambling State or Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
The Panthers trailed 17-0 midway through the third quarter, but rallied with a safety and two fourth-quarter touchdowns. Prairie View failed to tie the game on a two-point conversion attempt after the second touchdown, leaving it in the unenviable position of trying to pull out a come-from-behind victory while starting deep in its own end with no timeouts left.
"I kept thinking we were going to pull it out some kind of way once we started moving the ball," Panthers coach Heishma Northern said. "A lot of times, winning is about not beating yourself. Sometimes we find ways to beat ourselves by getting penalties and not making plays."
The Panthers beat themselves in several different ways in the final minutes.
Prairie View was forced to call a much-needed timeout on the two-point conversion try because the offense spent too much time celebrating Lovelocke's 6-yard touchdown pass to Deandre Cooper with 3:47 remaining. The Panthers were also hurt by an illegal block penalty that wiped out Moses Ellis' 49-yard punt return, which would have allowed them to start at the Alabama A&M 42 on the final drive.
Finally, there was Lovelocke's crippling fumble.
"It hurts me to the bottom of my stomach," said Lovelocke, who finished 9-of-21 passing for 110 yards to go with a rushing touchdown. "This is a feeling that'll never go away."
The Panthers also hurt themselves by not being able to slow down Bulldogs running back Kaderius Lacey (163 rushing yards, one TD) through the first three quarters. Alabama A&M backup quarterback David Isabelle added to Prairie View's misery by throwing two touchdown passes in relief of starter Deaunte Mason, who left in the second quarter with a knee injury.
A win would have placed the Panthers in the SWAC title game for the first time since 2009, when they beat Alabama A&M to claim their first conference title since 1964. They would have needed both Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Grambling State to lose their regular-season finales to advance.
But Arkansas-Pine Bluff beat Texas Southern later Saturday, leaving the Panthers to dwell on how close they came.
"Like I told the guys, don't count on someone else to do something for you when you can do it yourself," Northern said. "The bottom line is that if we take care of our business, we don't have that to worry about."
Source: Houston Chronicle