LEXINGTON, Va. --- Reece Udinski passed for 172 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score as Virginia Military Institute snapped a 25-game losing streak with a 20-11 win over Tusculum University Saturday afternoon at Foster Stadium.
Udinski was held 150 yards below his third-ranked FCS passing yards per game average of 322.1 yards, but guided a Keydet attack that piled up 173 yards on the ground, well above its season average of 45.1 rushing yards per game. Alex Ramsey nearly matched his season rushing totals by carrying 23 times for 133 yards for VMI (1-8), which earned its first victory since Oct. 8, 2016 against ETSU.
Tommy Pistone completed 16-of-35 passes for 146 yards and a touchdown for the Pioneers (5-4), who received a combined 198 yards rushing from the trio of Jordon Shippy, Lor'renzo Pratt and Maxwell Joseph but gave back 37 of the yards on five sacks by the VMI defense. Brett Howell had a game-high 16 tackles to lead the Keydet defensive unit, which had its five sacks come from five different players.
Kris Thornton made eight catches for 83 yards for the Keydets, who led 20-3 before the Pioneers rallied on a safety and a touchdown in the final 11 1/2 minutes. Devone Humphrey caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Udinski in the third quarter, and Quan Myers added a 2-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter.
VMI's losing streak was the longest among Division I FBS/FCS schools, and third-longest in the NCAA behind Division III Earlham (52 games) and Division II Shorter (38 games), which had its streak extended by Tusculum earlier this season with a 61-14 loss on Sept. 8. Four of VMI's losses this season were by seven points or less, including a 27-24 home loss to ETSU on Sept. 14.
Tusculum's only touchdown came with 7:11 left on a 16-yard pass from Pistone to Ajay Belanger, but the two-point conversion attempt failed and the Pioneers would not advance past midfield on their final possession of the game.
The teams played a scoreless first quarter, highlighted by the Pioneers failing to convert on fourth-and-1 at their own 48 followed by an interception of Udinski in the end zone by Tusculum's Dee Alford.
A 24-yard pass from Udinski to Javeon Lara set up the Keydets at first-and-goal at the Tusculum 4, but a personal foul penalty followed by a Malik Goodman sack left VMI with a 37-yard field goal attempt by Grant Clemons. The kick was wide left and Tusculum took over at its 20 with 12:09 left in the first half.
Another Pioneer punt gave VMI the ball at its 17, and completions by Udinski of 12 yards to Humphrey and 10 yards to Korey Bridy, along with an 18-yard run by Ramsey, put the ball at the Tusculum 36. Udinski then hit Kris Thornton for 32 yards to the Pioneer 1 on fourth-and-7, and Udinski scored on the keeper with 5:33 left in the first half for a 7-0 VMI lead.
After an exchange of punts, Tusculum was able to mount a two-minute drive that moved the ball from its 43 to the VMI 22 on runs of 13 yards by Shippy and 11 by Pratt. A sack of Pistone on third-and-10 left Joe Defatta to try a 48-yard field goal, which he drilled with four seconds left in the half to cut the VMI lead to 7-3.
The field goal was a season long for Defatta and tied for the ninth-longest in program history, and was the longest for a Pioneer since Gareth Rowlands connected from 49 at Newberry on Oct. 24, 2009.
Tusculum's defense forced VMI into a three-and-out on the first possession of the second half, and the Pioneers drove 48 yards in 15 plays deep into Keydet territory, aided by a pair of third-down conversions by Pistone to Shippy and to Deshawn Davis. However, Defatta's 35-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Collin Loftis to keep VMI's lead at 7-3 with 7:02 left in the third quarter.
After the blocked kick, VMI marched 80 yards in 15 plays, converting a third-and-12 with a 15-yard pass to Thornton and a third-and-20 with a 21-yard completion from Udinski to Lara. Udinski then hooked up with Humphrey from 11 yards to extend the VMI lead to 14-3 with 2:49 left in the third quarter.
Tusculum's next possession started with a 24-yard run by Shippy, and ended on the next play when Pistone was sacked by Chuck Weatherman and fumbled, with Tyren Cloyd recovering for the Keydets at the Tusculum 39. A 15-yard run on third-and-15 by Ramsey and a 21-yard pass to Thornton on third-and-3 gave VMI the ball at the Pioneer 1.
A false start penalty pushed VMI back five yards, but a pass interference call on a third-down incompletion gave the Keydets a first down, and set up a two-yard run by Myers for a 20-3 VMI lead with 13:56 remaining following a missed extra point by Clemons.
Pratt, who returned a kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown last week against Carson-Newman, ran the ensuing kickoff back 68 yards to the VMI 26. A 21-yard pass from Pistone to Pratt gave the Pioneers first and goal at the 6, but Tusculum was stopped on fourth and goal from the 5 to give the ball back to VMI with 11:14 remaining.
The Pioneers would get points on the next play, as Udinski was sacked in the end zone by Isaiah Dunn for a safety and a 20-5 VMI lead with 11:10 to go. Tusculum took the free kick and moved 82 yards in nine plays, as Pistone hit Carter Mangel for 16 yards, Pratt for 20 and Jacob Moss for 11. Pistone, who went 5-for-5 for 68 yards in the drive, connected with Belanger from 15 yards with 7:11 remaining. A two-point conversion attempt failed, leaving Tusculum down 20-11.
Tusculum had one final possession with 5:52 left and moved to midfield, but sacks by Uzoma Kpaduwa and A.J. Smith gave the ball back to VMI with 2:13 remaining, allowing Ramsey to run out the clock with four carries for 26 yards.
Shippy led Tusculum with 90 rushing yards on 12 carries, with Pratt adding 66 yards on 14 runs and Joseph 42 yards on 10 attempts. Moss was the top receiver for the Pioneers with five catches for 33 yards, with Pratt making four grabs for 58 yards.
Pratt, whose 262 all-purpose yards against Carson-Newman were the seventh-most in a game in program history, had 248 yards against VMI (66 rushing, 58 receiving, 124 returns) for the 11th-best performance in school history.
Udinski entered the game with 254 completions in 431 attempts for 2592 yards and 18 touchdowns, but completed 17-of-32 passes for 172 yards and a score against the Pioneers. The VMI defense, which had been giving up 524.2 yards per game through eight games, allowed 307 yards against the Pioneers.
Tusculum's defense was led by David Johnson, who had 10 tackles (seven solo) and two tackles for loss, along with Bryce Bartlett who had 10 tackles (five solo) and a pass breakup. The Pioneers also had five sacks in the game, coming from Chris Matheus, Nelson Louis, Goodman, Dunn and C.J. Bartley.
Pioneer punter Andrew Cantrell kicked five times for an average of 39.4 yards, with a long of 51 yards and one inside the 20. Reed King had four punts for VMI, averaging 41.8 yards with a long of 56.
Saturday's game was the first in which Tusculum scored exactly 11 points in a game since an 11-9 victory against Livingstone on Sept. 2, 1999. The loss dropped the Pioneers to 9-6 against FCS schools since 1998 and 2-2 against Southern Conference opponents.
Tusculum will close the 2018 regular season on Saturday, Nov. 10 at Wingate beginning at 3 p.m. The winner will clinch outright possession of second place in the South Atlantic Conference behind league champion Lenoir-Rhyne, with no worse than a share of third place going to the loser. The Pioneers beat Wingate 25-17 at home in last year's season finale, spoiling a perfect regular season for the SAC champion Bulldogs.