WINGATE, N.C. --- Despite being outgained by a two-to-one margin, Wingate University held off a late Tusculum University rally for a 16-12 victory in South Atlantic Conference football action Saturday afternoon at Irwin Belk Stadium.
The Bulldogs (8-3, 5-2 SAC) locked up their sixth straight victory and sole possession of second place in the SAC despite mustering just 140 yards of total offense. A long return of the opening kickoff set up Wingate's first touchdown, and Cameron Mattison returned an interception 44 yards for a score in the second quarter as the Bulldogs led 16-0 at halftime.
Hunter Weismore came on for the Pioneers midway through the third quarter after an injury to starting quarterback Tommy Pistone and threw two touchdown passes in the final four minutes, but Tusculum (5-5, 4-3 SAC) misfired on two short field goals and an extra point in the second half during their comeback attempt.
Weismore finished 7-for-17 for 108 yards and touchdowns of 15 yards to Brian Burnett and 17 yards to Jacob Moss for Tusculum, which controlled the ball for 35 minutes to 25 minutes for Wingate and ran 77 plays to 53 for the Bulldogs. Maxwell Joseph led Tusculum with 12 carries for 65 yards, and Ajay Belanger made six catches for 70 yards.
Shaw Crocker completed just 7-of-18 passes for 87 yards and a touchdown for the Bulldogs, Nijere Peoples ran for 82 yards on 25 carries and Bryan Mitchell made three receptions for 32 yards. The Wingate defense piled up eight sacks of Pistone and Weismore, led by 2 1/2 sacks and seven quarterback hurries by Cardell Rawlings and two sacks by Cal Hanford.
The 140 yards of total offense allowed by Tusculum is the fewest given up by the Pioneers to a SAC opponent since Mars Hill was limited to 115 total yards in a 30-14 Tusculum victory on Nov. 6, 2004.
Wingate received the opening kickoff, which Ra'Quan Simmons returned 51 yards to the Tusculum 39. Five plays later, Crocker connected with tight end Mason Flynt for a 17-yard touchdown and a quick 7-0 Bulldog lead just 2:05 into the first quarter.
After each team punted on its next two possessions, Tusculum took over at its 11 and moved into Wingate territory on runs of 16 yards by Joseph, 10 yards by Lor'renzo Pratt and passes of 13 and 17 yards from Pistone to Belanger. Faced with fourth and 11 at the Wingate 35, the Pioneers chose to go for it and were stopped on an incomplete pass with 45 seconds left in the first quarter.
Following two more punts, Wingate started from its 27 and crossed midfield on a 17-yard pass from Crocker to BJ Muckelvene and a nine-yard run by Peoples. However, the drive stalled and the Pioneers took over at their 16 following a punt. Tusculum drove to its 30, where Pistone was picked off by Mattison who went 44 yards for a touchdown and a 13-0 Wingate lead with 4:02 left in the first half.
Tusculum would turn the ball over for the second time on three plays as Belanger was hit by Davion Washington after a 13-yard reception, with Washington falling on the fumble at the Pioneer 42. A pair of personal foul penalties against Tusculum moved the ball into the red zone, and Wingate kicker McLean Robertson drilled a 38-yard field goal with 49 seconds left in the half to send the Bulldogs to the locker room with a 16-0 lead.
The Pioneers received the second-half kickoff and moved to the Wingate 30, but a sack of 11 yards by Rawlings pushed Tusculum into a punting situation. Wingate's first second-half drive ended in a punt that gave the Pioneers possession at midfield, with a 20-yard completion from Weismore to Pratt moving the ball to the Wingate 16. On fourth down, Tusculum went for the field goal but a 33-yard attempt by Joe Defatta was no good with 4:28 left in the third quarter.
Tusculum would force its only turnover of the game on Wingate's next possession, as Isaiah Dunn intercepted Crocker near midfield and returned the ball to the Wingate 28. Runs of 9 and 13 yards by Jordon Shippy gave the Pioneers first and goal at the Wingate 6, but the drive stalled and Defatta's 24-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Robbie Wallace with 1:36 to go in the third.
The Pioneers' first drive of the fourth quarter was marred by three consecutive fumbles that were recovered by Tusculum each time, but stalled the drive close to midfield. Tusculum forced yet another Wingate punt and drove 73 yards in eight plays, including scrambles by Weismore of 13 yards on third-and-8 and 12 yards on fourth-and-4. The drive culminated in a 15-yard touchdown pass from Weismore to Burnett with 3:10 left, with the two-point attempt failing to leave Wingate with a 16-6 lead.
Wingate recovered the onside kick but failed on fourth-and-4, giving the Pioneers the ball back with 2:04 remaining. A 42-yard pass from Weismore to Moss put Tusculum at the Wingate 20, and on fourth-and-goal an incomplete pass was ruled to be defensive pass interference to give the Pioneers life.
Two plays later, Weismore hooked up with Moss from 17 yards out to bring the Pioneers within 16-12 with 23 seconds left, but the conversion attempt failed and Wingate recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock.
Before leaving in the third quarter, Pistone went 7-for-16 for 79 yards. Tusculum quarterbacks combined to complete 14 passes in 33 attempts for 187 yards and two touchdowns against Wingate. Moss finished with three catches for 67 yards and a touchdown with two receptions each by Burnett and Pratt.
Ivan Hogans was the leading tackler for the Pioneers with 12 stops (three solo), with 1 1/2 sacks and 2 1/2 tackles for loss. Nelson Louis had eight total tackles, with two for loss, and a pair of pass breakups along with a sack. For Wingate, Wallace had a team-high 11 tackles and Joe Kelly added nine, with Rawlings accumulating 2 1/2 sacks, a forced fumble, and a pass breakup to go along with eight total tackles and seven hurries.
Andrew Cantrell punted five times for Tusculum with an average of 40.6 yards and a long of 50, while Chris Birozes had seven punts for Wingate, averaging 38.0 yards with a long of 45.
Despite the loss, Tusculum finishes the season tied for third place in the SAC with Carson-Newman at 4-3. The Pioneers have finished in the top half of the league standings in each of head coach Jerry Odom's first three seasons.