Lincoln-Way West graduate Andrew Gray has been involved in many big plays this season as a member of the University of South Dakota football team.
But while he had one opportunity that allowed him to cover nearly the distance of the field, the junior safety might prefer to focus on what happened Saturday, even though it was just falling on a fumble, because of what was at stake.
With less than a minute remaining in the Coyotes’ NCAA FCS first-round playoff game at No. 22 Nicholls State, the hosts seemed positioned to either tie the score or go for the lead in a 38-31 game when they got a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line.
But Phillip Powell forced a fumble on a run by Kyran Irvin, and Gray recovered the football in the end zone. The original ruling was that the ball carrier was down, but upon review, that was reversed and South Dakota took over with 40 seconds left and ran out the clock.
It was a huge moment for the South Dakota program, which was competing in the FCS playoffs for the first time. The win earned the 8-4 Coyotes an appearance in the final 16, where they will meet 10-1 Sam Houston State at
2 p.m. Saturday in Huntsville, Texas.
Gray and his twin brother, Alex, have contributed in many ways for coach Bob Nielson’s Coyotes, who opened the season with six-straight wins before struggling down the stretch in the Missouri Football Conference, where they lost four of their last five, including their last three games, to enter the 24-team playoffs with a 7-4 record.
The Gray brothers have been leaders on defense with Andrew leading in solo tackles with 44 and ranking second in total tackles with 77, just one behind team leader Jim Litrenta. Andrew, who is one of two USD defenders to have started all 12 games, also has 5.5 tackles for loss, five breakups, six deflections and two fumble recoveries.
He also was involved in another dramatic play in a 42-0 romp over Southern Illinois when he picked off a pass and returned it 97 yards for a touchdown, which is the longest interception return in the program’s history.
For his efforts, Andrew was one of a record five players from the program to be named to the all-Missouri Valley Football Conference team. The others are guard Stetson Dagel, long snapper Brandon Godsey, defensive end Darin Greenfield and quarterback Chris Streveler, who was also selected as the league’s Offensive Player of the Year.
Alex, a junior linebacker, played in 10 games and started six of them. He ranks sixth on the team in total tackles with 43, which includes 26 solo stops. He has 7.5 tackles for losses and has forced three quarterback hurries this season.
In the playoff win, Andrew had nine tackles, including three solos, while Alex made four solo stops. Andrew’s top tackle totals in a game were 12 against Youngstown State while Alex had a high of 10 against Illinois State. The Gray brothers were both three-year performers while competing at Lincoln-Way West.