GREENEVILLE, Tenn. --- The North Greenville University football team forced a pair of turnovers and blocked a punt, converting all three into scores in a 13-3 win at Tusculum University Thursday night at Pioneer Field in the season-opener for both teams.
It was a defensive battle between the Pioneers (0-1) and Crusaders (1-0) TU outgained the visitors by a 246-205 yardage margin as neither team rushed over 100 yards in the contest.
NGU quarterback Will Hunter went 23-of-38 for 179 yards including a 10-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Helms in the third quarter to break a 3-3 tie and give the Crusaders a 10-3 lead.
Tusculum signal caller Alex Ogle passed for 181 yards going 16-of-41 with an interception. TU running back Jordon Shippy ran for a game-high 59 yards on nine carries and also forced a fumble on special teams.
Tusculum linebacker Ivan Hogans led all players with 11 tackles including two for loss and a sack. Bryce Bartlett and CJ Bartley posted nine tackles apiece while Dee Alford tallied eight stops and three pass break-up defensive for the Black and Orange. Randy Hooks added seven tackles including two for loss, while Colton Strickland led all players with two sacks.
NGU's Matthew Thomas led the Crusaders with 10 tackles, including two stops for loss and two pass break-ups. Johnny Worthy added seven hits, two break-ups and blocked a punt in the fourth quarter to set up NGU's final score.
Following a scoreless first quarter as NGU amassed just 56 yards while limiting TU to 21 total yards in the opening 15 minutes. In the second quarter, it was more of the same until Ogle was intercepted by R.J. Wooten and returned the pick 32 yards to the TU 12 yard-line. The Pioneer defense held strong and limited Matt Gravely to a 21-yard field goal for the game's first score and a 3-0 lead with 2:35 before halftime.
On the ensuing kickoff, Jay Boyd returned the ball to set up good field position, but a TU holding penalty moved the ball to the nine-yard line. Tusculum went three-and-out as NGU took over at the TU 47 with 57 seconds remaining in the quarter. The Crusaders moved to the TU 13 but the drive would stall there. Gravely came on to try a 31-yard field goal but the kick went wide left to keep it a 3-0 game heading to the locker room.
NGU got the ball first in the second half and once again the Tusculum defense limited the Crusaders to three plays. A 46-yard punt by Bobby Foos was downed at the TC 30. Tusculum opened with its longest offensive play of the game, a 28-yard completion from Ogle to Tory Ponder as TU moved into NGU territory for the first time in the game.
On the next play, Ogle was sacked in the backfield and fumbled but the loose ball was recovered by Shippy. Shippy rambled for 15 yards on the next play to the NGU 32 and later, Ogle completed a first down pass to Deshawn Davis to move into the NGU red zone at the 16. Tusculum got a close to the 12-yardline but the drive would stall. Joe Defatta came on and connected on a 29-yard field goal at the 10:17 mark of the third quarter to tie the game at 3-3.
The momentum was on the side of the home team as NGU went three-and-out for a second straight time as TU started its next possession at its own 39-yard line. Shippy ran off a 16-yard sprint to the NGU 45 and a first down. But two plays later, Shippy's number was call again but he fumbled the hand-off which was recovered by NGU's Seth Laughter at the 50.
Eight plays later, Hunter passed to the end zone as Bartlett deflected the ball, but went right into the arms of Helms for the only touchdown of the game. Gravely's extra point made it a 10-3 game with 4:29 left in the third quarter.
Special teams came into play early in the fourth quarter. Gravely came onto punt for Foos and got off a 76-yard boomer as TU took over at its 12. The Pioneers converted two first downs but would be forced to punt. Freshman punter Andrew Cantrell's kick was blocked at the TU 30 by Worthy with 7:30 left in the game.
North Greenville took advantage of the special teams opportunity and Gravely connected on his second field goal of the game, 28-yarder to lead 13-3 with 4:02 left.
Without any timeouts, the Pioneers drove 11 plays and covered 69 yards moving to the NGU 6. But on fourth-down at five, Ogle's pass attempt was knocked way by Worthy to seal the win.
The Pioneers came away with three sacks and recorded nine pass break-ups. NGU posted one sack, but was credited with nine break-ups and five quarterback hurries in the Crusaders' sixth straight win over Tusculum.
Foos averaged 41 yards on his seven punts, but Cantrell, making his collegiate debut average 36.8 yards on his eight punts with three coming inside the 20-yard line.
Tusculum returns to action next week when the Pioneers travel to Rome, Georgia to take on Shorter University for a 1 p.m. contest. TU defeated the Hawks 39-12 last season in Greeneville.