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Defense forces five turnovers, Pioneers down Mars Hill 24-7 on Senior Day

Javon Green recovered two fumbles and returned one for a TD in Tusculum's 24-7 home finale win over Mars Hill (photo by Chuck Williams)
Javon Green recovered two fumbles and returned one for a TD in Tusculum's 24-7 home finale win over Mars Hill (photo by Chuck Williams)

GREENEVILLE, Tenn. --- Thurlow Wilkins rushed for 149 yards, while the Tusculum defense forced five turnovers as the Pioneers recorded its fourth win a row with Saturday's 24-7 South Atlantic Conference win over visiting Mars Hill on Senior Day at Pioneer Field.

It was Wilkins third straight game going over 100 yards as the Pioneers have rebounded from a 1-5 start to the season to even its overall record at 5-5 and go to 4-3 in league play to move into a tie for fourth place in the SAC standings with the Lions (5-5, 4-3 SAC).

Tusculum's four-game winning streak is its first since winning four in row to end the 2014 season.

The Tusculum defense held Mars Hill to 298 yards on the day, 143 yards under their seasonal average (441.2 ypg).  The five turnovers forced (3 interceptions, 2 fumbles) are tied for seventh in a TU game.

Senior Dee Alford tied a pair of school single-game records in his home finale at Pioneer Field. Alford became the 24th Pioneer to post two interceptions in a game. He also broke-up four passes giving him six passes defended, matching the single-game mark posted by Kaytron Becton in the 2012 meeting at Mars Hill. 

Alford has posted a team-leading five interceptions this year and 10 in his career which are the third-most in program history.  His 55 interception return yards today gives him 195 for his career, which is a new TU record, surpassing the 175 yards on 11 interceptions by Jermaine Mack from 1994-1997.

Senior defensive lineman Javon Green accounted for four tackles, two sacks and returned a pair of fumbles, including one for a four-yard scoop-and-score in the third quarter for his first collegiate touchdown.  His three fumble recoveries this year are tied for the third-most in a TU single-season.

Tusculum junior linebacker Ivan Hogans led all players with 11 tackles including one for loss while senior Solomon Hunter tallied eight tackles in his TU home finale.

Tusculum quarterback Joaquin Collazo went 12-of-16 for 103 yards and a touchdown with zero interceptions.  MHU signal caller Jimmy Urzua went 20-of-40 for 245 yards with a TD and was sacked three times on the afternoon.

But the defensive gem of the game for the Pioneers was limiting 2018 SAC Offensive Player of the Year Craig Rucker to 74 all-purpose yards on the day including 59 yards on four catches.

Tusculum forced a three-and-out on MHU's first possession and took over at midfield. Collazo completed an eight-yard pass to Ajay Belanger and followed with a 15-yard shovel pass to Tory Ponder to get to the MHU 18.  Wilkins followed with runs of 11 and six yards to get to the one.  The drive fizzled out there and redshirt freshman Eli Shepherd kicked a 21-yard field goal through the uprights as Tusculum led 3-0 at the 8:58 mark of the first quarter.

Later in the quarter, the Pioneers looked to be in business again as Alford picked off MHU quarterback Jimmy Urzua and returned the pick 55 yards to the MHU 28.  An illegal block on the play by MHU was flagged and Tusculum started at the MHU 14.  But on the first play of the possession, MHU's Jayson Gaston forced a fumble and DJ Morgan recovered the ball at the MHU 14.

The Lions took advantage of the miscue and marched 86 yards in 15 plays and took 7:11 off the clock, capping off the drive with a Urzua 31-yard TD pass to Rucker for his SAC leading 14th touchdown catch and league-best 18 TD overall.  Tanner Fox's extra point gave the Lions the lead at 7-3 with 10:02 left in the second quarter.

The score would remain that way for the remainder of the half as both teams were unable to muster attack heading into the locker room.

Tusculum took the opening kickoff of the second half and the TU offense gave MHU a healthy dose of Wilkins who rattled of runs of 30, 23 and one yard to get to the MHU 13. From there, Collazo completed a 13-yard TD pass to sophomore Jacob Moss for his second TD of the year as Tusculum regained the lead at 7-3 with 12:28 left in the third quarter.

Mars Hill took its opening possession into Tusculum territory thanks to an 18-yard completion to Javon Harbison, along with a face mask and pass interference penalty on the Pioneers to get to the TU 19.  But Urzua would be picked off by Alford for a second time as Tusculum took over at the TU 6.

Tusculum got out of the shadow of its own end zone and converted a pair of first downs before punting. Sophomore Andrew Cantrell got off a 36-yarder, but Rucker returned the kick 18 yards to the TU 46. But the Lions would throw four incomplete passes including Fox's on fourth down.

The Pioneers were once again on the move as Wilkins posted runs of 15, 8 and 11 yards to move to the MHU 20.  But two plays later, the Pioneers fumbled again as Antwon McClee forced the TU miscue and Gaston came up with the loose ball as the Lions took over at the MHU 11.

On the second play of the possession, Urzua threw a lateral to Rucker, but the ball hit off his leg and rolled to the four-yard line.  Green picked up the loose ball and fell into the end zone for the score as the Pioneers increased their lead to 17-7 with 43 seconds left in the quarter.

On the ensuing possession early in the final quarter, TU's Nick Jackson intercepted Urzua and returned the pick 36 yards to the MHU 11.  A taunting call on the return moved the ball back 15 yards to the MHU 26.

But Wilkins took over from there with three rushes, including a 12-yarder into the end zone for his third rushing TD of the season and fourth overall as the Pioneers led 24-7 with 12:43 remaining.

The two teams would be forced to punt on their next drives, including Cantrell as he got off a 41-yarder to pin the Lions at their eight yard line with 5:12 remaining in the game.

On the second play of the possession, Green came through on defense again as he striped Urzua of the ball in the backfield and fell three yards to the MHU 4.  But Wilkins would fumble on the first play of the TU drive which Morgan gobbled up for his second fumble recovery of the game.

The Lions would amass a 15-yard possession over the final 4:18 but would come up empty on fourth down from the TU 24 to end the game.

The game was marred with penalties as the two teams combined for 28 in the game (14 each) as TU was penalized 141 yards (5th-most in TU history), while MHU was flagged for 132 yards.

Tusculum will close out the regular season next Saturday as the Pioneers make the short trip to Jefferson City to take on arch-rival Carson-Newman (7-2, 5-2 SAC) at Burke-Tarr Stadium for a 1 p.m. kickoff.






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