GREENEVILLE, Tenn. --- The Wingate University football team jumped out to a 14-0 lead but the 16th-ranked Bulldogs had to hold off a stubborn Tusculum University squad in a 28-21 South Atlantic Conference win at Pioneer Field Saturday afternoon. The TU homecoming crowd of 3,004 saw a defensive battle in the 15th meeting between the two schools.
Wingate (5-0, 3-0 SAC) returned a blocked punt for a touchdown and Nijere Peoples rushed for 71 yards and a score as the Bulldogs remained undefeated on the season and ran its regular winning streak to 11 in a row. It was also Wingate's first win in Greeneville since 2013 and its first-ever victory over Tusculum as a ranked opponent in four tries.
For a second straight week, the Pioneers (1-4, 1-2 SAC) came out on the short-end of the result despite owning an advantage in total yardage (319-256) and time of possession (30:31 – 29:29) over their opponent.
Tusculum redshirt quarterback Joaquin Collazo came off the bench in place of injured starter Bryce Moore in the first quarter. Collazo passed for 170 yards and a season-best three touchdowns as he went 13-of-23 with one interception. Sophomore receiver Tory Ponder was his top target as he posted six receptions for 105 yards and two TDs.
On the opening series, Tusculum picked up a first down and got close to midfield before the drive stalled. TU's punt attempt was blocked by Jaquan Edwards and was scooped up by Wingate teammate Raymond Owens as he sprinted down the sideline for a 30-yard touchdown at the 13:12 mark of the opening quarter. McLean Robertson's extra point gave the Bulldogs a 7-0 lead.
On Tusculum's second possession, Moore picked up TU's second first down of the game with a 12-yard completion to Ponder to the TU 40. But on the next play, Moore was dazed with a hard tackle for a five-yard rush. TU punter Andrew Cantrell boomed a 49-yarder to pin the Bulldogs at their six-yard line.
Wingate quarterback completed a 45-yard pass to Jalen Brooks and Peoples rambled off runs of 11 and 10 yards to get to the TU 22. From there, Crocker found Kamal Desor in the end zone for a 22-yard TD as the Bulldogs led 14-0 with 7:18 left in the first frame.
Moore came back in but on the second play of the series, he suffered a second blow to the head, this time by Juan Pagan-Gonzalez, which dislodged the helmet from the TU signal caller. Pagan-Gonzalez was flagged for targeting and was later confirmed by video replay and was ejected from the game.
With Collazo at the helm, he moved the Pioneers into Wingate territory getting the Black and Orange to the WU 28. But Collazo under threw his receiver and Davion Washington hauled in the interception in the end zone.
The Tusculum defense held as the Pioneers took over at the TU 45. Jordon Shippy sprinted off for eight yards and Collazo completed a 10-yard pass to the Chavis Williams at the WU 37 on the quarter's final play. On a Shippy six-yard scamper, Wingate was called for a face mask penalty and after TU timeout, Collazo completed a shovel-pass to Ponder as he sprinted 15 yards for the score. Eli Shepherd's kick trimmed the deficit in half at 14-7.
Wingate answered with a nine-play, 71-yard scoring drive capped off by a Kalen Clark one-yard plunge up the middle for a 21-7 lead by the visitors with 8:40 remaining until halftime. Crocker completed passes of 13 and 20 yards, while also rolling out for a 16-yard rush himself as Wingate moved deep into TU territory at the 12. The drive was extended on third and nine when TU was flagged for a defensive holding penalty.
With 3:09 on the scoreboard, Collazo completed three straight passes including a 38-yarder to Ponder for his second TD of the game with 1:26 left as TU headed into the locker room trailing 21-14.
Wingate took the opening possession of the second half and went three and out, but punter Ethan Evans boomed a 57-yarder as TU took over at their own four-yard line. The Pioneers also went three plays and out as Simmons posted a four-yard return and got 15 extra yards on a TU face mask call as the Bulldogs started from the TU 26.
A Peoples' seven-yard rush followed by a TU pass interference penalty had the Bulldogs at the TU 4. Peoples finished the drive with a four-yard TD for his third TD run of the season and extend the lead to 28-14 with 10:51 left in the third.
The score would remain that way heading into the final quarter. Wingate drove into Tusculum territory but on fourth down and three from the TU 38, Javon Green forced an incompletion as WU turned the ball over on downs.
The Pioneers took the momentum as Collazo opened the possession with a 22-yard run which was followed on the next play by a 15-yard face mask penalty to the WU 24. On fourth down and five to go, Collazo completed a perfect lob pass to Shippy for a 19-yard touchdown as the Pioneers cut the deficit to 28-21 with 9:04 remaining.
Wingate had yet to convert a third down on its previous nine attempts, but Crocker came through with an 18-yard completion to Simmons to the TU 46. Later in the drive, Wingate was penalized for holding. On third down and 19, Crocker scrambled to his right and saw a wide open R.J Mobley heading to the pylon of the end zone. Throwing off the run, Crocker's heave was on target but in the last second TU's Dee Alford tipped the ball out of the waiting hands of Mobley for an incompletion and forcing Wingate to punt.
Tusculum took over at its own 10 with 3:05 left in the game. The Pioneers picked up three first downs, including a 13-yard completion from Collazo to Williams followed by a 14-yard strike from Collazo to Jacob Moss as TU was at midfield. But the drive would stall there after four incompletions and the Bulldogs would hold on for the win.
Crocker went 7-for-14 for 128 yards and a touchdown while Jalen Brooks proving to be Wingate's top receiver with three grabs for 68 yards.
Both teams were penalized 10 times apiece, with three of those coming on Tusculum's special teams.
Tusculum will face its third nationally-ranked opponent at home next Saturday, hosting defending SAC Champion and eighth-ranked Lenoir-Rhyne University for a 1:30 p.m. contest.