GREENEVILLE, Tenn. --- Jackson Cauthen returned an interception 31 yards for a touchdown in the first half and stopped Josh Sheridan on fourth-and-1 in the final minute as Tusculum University held on for a 23-20 victory over UNC Pembroke in non-conference action Saturday at Pioneer Field.
Eli Shepherd connected on three field goals for the Pioneers, including an 18-yarder early in the fourth quarter which broke a 20-20 tie and lifted Tusculum (3-5) to its second consecutive victory. The Braves (3-5) lost their 13th consecutive road game despite quarterback Josh Jones throwing for 277 yards and a touchdown on 24-for-36 passing, including 12 completions for 118 yards to Quay Threatt.
The Pioneers rolled up a season-high 283 yards on the ground against the Braves, led by Jordon Shippy who carried 11 times for 123 yards and Thurlow Wilkins, who ran 11 times for a season-high 106 yards and a touchdown. Quarterback Bryce Moore completed just four passes in 14 attempts, but Tusculum did not turn the ball over while scoring 13 points off two fumbles and an interception by UNC Pembroke.
Trailing 23-20, UNC Pembroke took over at its own eight-yard line with 4:45 left following a 42-yard punt by Tusculum's Andrew Cantrell. The Braves marched 74 yards on 13 plays during the drive, aided by back-to-back 17-yard receptions by Threatt and Faheem Diaab. A 13-yard pass from Jones to Diaab moved the Braves into Pioneer territory, and a nine-yard completion to Threatt set up UNCP with third-and-1 at the Tusculum 17.
Sheridan was stopped for no gain on third down, and with 30 seconds left the Braves decided to forgo the 34-yard field goal attempt on fourth down. Jones called out the play and moved down the line, allowing a direct snap to Sheridan. However, Cauthen found the gap and stood up Sheridan for a one-yard loss with 26 seconds to play, marking the first time this season that the Braves failed to score when reaching the red zone in 26 attempts (25 touchdowns, five field goals).
Cauthen finished the game with eight tackles (five solo) with a sack, 2 1/2 tackles for loss and a forced fumble along with his pick-six in the second quarter. Ivan Hogans added eight tackles to become the 20th player in program history to reach 200 career tackles, and Dee Alford made eight stops as well and forced a fumble that led to a Tusculum field goal just before halftime.
UNC Pembroke attempted an onside kick to start the game, but Tusculum's Desmond Arthur fell on the ball at midfield. On fourth-and-1, Shippy was stopped by Amari Brice-Green to turn the ball over to the Braves. Following a punt by Pembroke, Tusculum went ahead 7-0 as Wilkins broke through the line and dashed 59 yards for a touchdown with 9:30 left in the first quarter.
The Braves responded with a 14-play, 77-yard drive that consumed 7 1/2 minutes and included a defensive holding call on a third-and-14 stop and completions of 10 yard to Threatt on third-and-7 and 16 yards to Sheridan on third-and-7. Jones then connected with Tyshawn Carter for nine yards along the left sideline for a touchdown, but Hunter Braswell's PAT hit the left upright and the Pioneers stayed ahead 7-6 with 2:03 left in the first quarter.
Early in the second quarter, the Braves took a 13-7 lead as Andrew Cantrell's punt was blocked by Pembroke's Alex Alteus, scooped by Eric Price and carried in from two yards out with 12:33 left in the first half. Tusculum punted on its next drive after running 5:43 off the clock, but the Pioneers regained the lead as a screen pass attempt by Jones on third-and-9 was picked off by Cauthen at the Pembroke 31 and returned for a touchdown for a 14-13 lead with 6:02 to go in the half.
An exchange of punts gave the Braves possession at their own 20 with 1:10 left in the half, but Alford knocked the ball free from Threatt after a completion and Isaiah Dunn returned the fumble to the Pembroke 25. Four plays later, Shepherd converted a 35-yard field goal to give Tusculum a 17-13 lead with 35 seconds to go in the first half.
The Pioneers stopped the Braves on their first possession of the second half, and on the second play following the punt it was Shippy's turn to roll for 59 yards all the way to the UNCP 20. After a pair of holding penalties pushed the Pioneers back, Shepherd was called on to drill a 45-yard field goal with 8:21 left in the third quarter to extend the Tusculum lead to 20-13.
UNC Pembroke tied the game on its next possession, driving 81 yards in nine plays which included 24-yard completions to Threatt and to Sheridan on third down. Sheridan ran the final seven yards for the touchdown and Braswell's extra point tied the game 20-20 with 4:06 to go in the third quarter.
A 40-yard punt by Cantrell left UNC Pembroke at its own 7 to start its next drive, and a 29-yard pass to Trey Dixon moved the ball to the Braves 36. On the next play, the Braves tried a reverse but Carter fumbled and Javon Green recovered at the Pembroke 27.
Will Boney converted a short run on fourth-and-inches and Moore scrambled for five yards to the Braves 6, followed by a penalty which moved the ball to the 3. However, the Pembroke defense stiffened on three runs by Maurice Gomillion, and Shepherd knocked through a chip shot from 18 yards to give Tusculum the lead back at 23-20 with 11:24 left.
The Braves converted another third-and-long on its next drive as Jones found Marcus McDonald for 23 yards, but a third-and-8 attempt was stopped by the Tusculum defense, forcing the Braves to punt with 7:28 remaining. Tusculum's Wilkins ran for 22 yards on the first play from scrimmage of the next drive, but three more running plays failed to gain a first down and the Pioneers punted with 4:45 left, setting up the Braves' final drive to tie or go ahead.
Tusculum's offense was entirely run-dependent in the second half, piling up 136 yards on 21 carries while failing to complete any of its three pass attempts. Tusculum threw the ball just 14 times in the game while running 41 times as a team, while Pembroke had 33 rushes and 36 passes in the contest. The Braves outgained the Pioneers 338-302 in the contest and held the ball for 31:35 compared to 28:25 for the Pioneers.
UNC Pembroke had eight third-down conversions in 15 attempts while Tusculum was just 2-for-13 on third down in the game. UNC Pembroke punter Isaac Parks, who entered the game leading Division II in punt average at 46.7 yards, punted five times for an average of 45.4 yards per kick, with a long of 59. Cantrell punted five times for Tusculum, averaging 32.8 yards but placing two inside the 20.
Sheridan was the leading rusher for Pembroke with 43 yards on 18 carries. Jones had the only run longer than 10 yards in the game for the Braves, with a 14-yard scramble that enabled him to finish in positive yards at 12. Six of the eight players to catch a pass for UNCP had at least a 16-yard catch, with four receptions for over 20 yards.
Devin Higgins was the leading tackler for UNC Pembroke with seven stops (three solo) while Jordan Howard had seven tackles, a sack and a pass breakup. Tusculum's longest pass completion in the game went for nine yards to Shippy on the third play from scrimmage.
Tusculum will continue its three-game homestand when Catawba visits Pioneer Field for a South Atlantic Conference game on Saturday, Nov. 2 at 1:30 p.m.