TIGERVILLE, S.C. --- Matt Gravely atoned for two earlier misses by connecting on a 29-yard field goal with 28 seconds left as North Greenville defeated Tusculum 34-33 in a back-and-forth season opener Thursday night at Younts Stadium.
The game featured seven lead changes, including four in the fourth quarter as the teams each used big plays to gain the lead. However, the Crusaders moved 52 yards in 10 plays after the Pioneers took their final lead to set up Gravely's kick, defeating Tusculum for the fifth straight season and the fourth time in as many meetings at home.
Will Hunter went 17-for-38 for 275 yards and two touchdowns for the Crusaders (1-0), who were coming off an appearance in the NCAA Division II quarterfinals a year ago and returned 10 starters on the offense. Robbie Brown grabbed eight passes for 153 yards and a score and Tracy Scott had 156 yards on 21 carries for the Crusaders, who piled up 484 yards of total offense in the game.
Alex Ogle had a productive first start for the Pioneers (0-1), completing 22-of-35 passes for 292 yards and three scores. Evan Gates had eight catches for 91 yards and the go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter for Tusculum, while Evan Altizer had five receptions for 66 yards and a score. Maxwell Joseph led the Pioneer ground attack with 48 yards on 18 carries and a touchdown.
Tusculum had taken a 33-31 lead with 4:13 left on a one-yard touchdown pass from Ogle to Gates, but the extra point was blocked to give North Greenville a chance for the win. A fourth-down conversion with just over two minutes left put the Crusaders in field goal range for Gravely's game-winner.
The Crusaders took the opening kickoff and marched 65 yards in 10 plays, using a pair of third-down conversions to set up a 10-yard touchdown pass from Hunter to Dionte Bryant. Gravely converted the extra point for a 7-0 North Greenville lead with 10:42 left in the first quarter.
Tusculum moved the ball 43 yards in nine plays in its first possession of the season, highlighted by a 21-yard run from Joseph, but were unable to convert on fourth-and-6 from the Crusader 32 to turn the ball over on downs with 6:22 left in the period.
After an exchange of punts left the Crusaders with possession at its own 23, it took one play for North Greenville to add to its lead. Hunter connected with Brown for a 77-yard catch-and-run touchdown with 2:41 left in the first quarter, with Gravely's conversion giving the Crusaders a 14-0 lead.
Hunter went 5-for-8 for 135 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter for the Crusaders, with Brown his favorite target by making four catches for 125 yards and a score. Joseph had nine carries for 38 yards in the opening quarter for the Pioneers, with Ogle connecting on 5-for-9 passes for 46 yards.
After forcing the Crusaders to punt on their first possession of the second quarter, the Pioneers moved the ball down the field behind runs of 12 yards from Ogle and 15 from Jordon Shippy and a 25-yard completion from Ogle to Gates, the latter setting up the Pioneers at the North Greenville 2.
On the next play, Joseph blasted in for the touchdown to cap a 6-play, 60-yard drive and Jose Esparza drilled the conversion to cut the Crusader lead to 14-7 with 10:21 to go in the second quarter.
Tusculum scored again on North Greenville's next play from scrimmage, as the Pioneers' Matt Simon forced Brown to fumble after a 16-yard reception from Hunter. Dee Alford scooped up the loose ball and ran 35 yards for a touchdown, with Esparza's conversion tying the score at 14-14 with exactly 10 minutes to play in the half.
The Pioneers nearly came up with another turnover on the Crusaders' next possession as Jay Boyd picked off Hunter deep in Tusculum territory, but an offsides flag against the defense negated the interception. A conversion on second-and-24 left the Crusaders with possession at the Pioneer 25, and a roughing the passing penalty pushed North Greenville inside the Tusculum 15.
However, the Tusculum defense made a stand in the red zone and forced a 30-yard field goal from Gravely that wrapped up a 10-play, 59-yard drive and put North Greenville back on top 17-14 with 5:25 left in the first half.
Following a three-and-out from the Pioneers, the Crusaders saw Hunter hook up with Brown for another big gain, but a personal foul penalty in the backfield wiped out a 60-yard completion to the Tusculum 10.
A short punt gave the Pioneers possession at midfield, and it took just three plays for Tusculum to take their first lead on a 39-yard touchdown pass from Ogle to Altizer. The extra point was off target, leaving the Pioneers ahead 20-17 with 3:01 to go in the half.
The Pioneer defense stopped the Crusaders just shy of midfield on their final drive of the first half, and took the 20-17 lead to the locker room. Hunter went 11-for-21 for 200 yards and two touchdowns in the first half for North Greenville, while Brown had seven catches for 147 yards and a score.
For Tusculum, Ogle was 8-for-16 for 116 yards and a touchdown in the first half, connecting with Gates and Shaquille Harris for three catches apiece. Joseph led all players with 49 rushing yards on 13 carries with a touchdown for the Pioneers, while Scott led the Crusaders on the ground with 43 yards on 13 rushes.
North Greenville outgained Tusculum 241-175 in the first half, and held a slim 15:02 to 14:58 edge in time of possession. The Pioneers were 4-for-8 on third-down conversions in the first half, while the Crusaders succeeded on two of seven third-down chances.
Neither team was unable to mount a sustained drive in the first few minutes of the third quarter, but the Crusaders used another big play to regain the lead. After a Tusculum punt, Scott ran 72 yards on the first play for a touchdown to give North Greenville a 24-20 lead with 9:03 remaining in the third quarter.
A pair of bad breaks nearly haunted the Pioneers on North Greenville's next drive, as an offsides penalty negated yet another interception from Boyd and a muffed snap on fourth-and-1 was recovered by Hunter for a Crusader first down. A conversion on third-and-9 moved the Crusaders to the Tusculum 10, but two penalties forced North Greenville into a 47-yard field goal attempt by Gravely that missed wide to the right.
After the missed kick, the Pioneers roared 70 yards in six plays to regain the lead. Ogle went 5-for-5 for 65 yards on the drive, with the final 33 yards through the air to Keondre Banks on the first play of the fourth quarter for a 27-24 Pioneer lead. The score was set up by completions of 9 and 14 yards to Altizer to move the ball into Crusader territory.
North Greenville wasted little time moving back into Tusculum territory, as a 37-yard kickoff return from Bryant put the ball near midfield. A 19-yard run from Scott helped bring the Crusaders to the Pioneer 24, but Gravely missed wide left on a 41-yard field goal attempt as the Pioneers retained the lead with 12:37 to go.
Tusculum attempted to run some clock, but Gates was stripped after a reception at the Pioneer 42 and the Crusaders' Johnny Worthy recovered. Hunter was forced to the sidelines for one play after a big hit, but backup Donny Baker stepped in and connected with Mason Sanders for a 32-yard gain to the Tusculum 10. Three plays later, Ashton Heard scored on a two-yard run to put the Crusaders back on top 31-27 with 10:29 left.
A failed onside kick attempt gave Tusculum the ball at the North Greenville 45, but the Crusader defense stopped the Pioneers on fourth-and-8 from their own 32 with 6:11 to go. North Greenville was unable to gain a first down and had to punt, giving Tusculum the ball back at its 32 with 5:44 remaining.
On third-and-6, Ogle nailed Rodnell Cruell for a 63-yard gain inside the North Greenville 1, and on the next play Gates caught the 1-yard scoring pass from Ogle to cap a 4-play, 68-yard drive. However, the extra-point attempt was blocked by Johnny Burch to leave Tusculum ahead 33-31 with 4:13 remaining.
Needing just a field goal to regain the lead, the Crusaders took the ensuing kickoff to their 40 and moved to the Pioneer 39 in two plays. Once again, the Tusculum defense stood tall as North Greenville faced fourth-and-5 from the Pioneer 34, but a 17-yard pass from Hunter to Christian Bruce gave the Crusaders the ball at the Tusculum 17.
Two short runs left the Crusaders at the Pioneer 12, and Gravely was perfect on a 29-yard field goal attempt to restore the North Greenville lead at 34-33 with 28 seconds to go. Tusculum had one last chance to go for the win, but ran out of time just short of midfield as North Greenville escaped with the one-point victory.
North Greenville finished with 19 first downs to 16 by Tusculum, but was hurt by nine penalties for 107 yards. The Pioneers were flagged six times for 61 yards in the game. Tusculum went 6-for-14 on third-down conversions and North Greenville was 4-for-16, but the Crusaders were 2-for-2 on fourth down and the Pioneers failed on both their attempts.
Defensively, Simon led the Pioneers with six tackles, including 1 1/2 for loss, and had two pass breakups along with a forced fumble. Ivan Hogans II had 5 1/2 tackles and Malik Goodman made five stops, with the lone sack being split by Javon Green and Colton Strickland. For North Greenville, Matthew Thomas and Jeremiah Ferguson shared the team lead with five tackles, with 1 1/2 for loss. Overall, the Crusaders sacked Ogle five times for 32 yards in losses.
Tusculum's Hunter Cantrell punted six times for a 41.0 average, with a long of 46 yards. Bobby Foos also punted six times for North Greenville, averaging 43.3 yards with two punts longer than 50 yards. North Greenville won the time of possession battle over Tusculum by a margin of 31:04 to 28:56.
The Pioneers will return to action for their home opener on Saturday, Sept. 9 at Pioneer Field against Shorter. Kickoff will be at 6 p.m., and the evening will be "Orange Wave Night" as fans are asked to wear Tusculum orange to the game. There will be a postgame fireworks show along with giveaways before and during the contest, and the popular Pioneer Tailgate Party will precede the game outside the stadium.