HICKORY, N.C. --- Lenoir-Rhyne University piled up 518 yards of total offense in a 35-10 victory over Tusculum University in South Atlantic Conference football action Saturday night at Moretz Stadium.
Bears quarterback Grayson Willingham completed just seven passes in 23 attempts, but three went for touchdowns to T.J. Smith who finished with five receptions for 142 yards. Ameen Stevens rushed for 163 yards and a touchdown and Jaquay Mitchell ran for 106 yards, including a 65-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage for the Bears (4-1, 2-0 SAC), who won their fourth straight after a season-opening loss.
Tusculum's only touchdown came on a 26-yard pass from Tommy Pistone to Ajay Belanger late in the second quarter. Pistone finished 11-for-36 for 217 yards and an interception, with Belanger setting season highs with six catches and 78 yards for the Pioneers (2-2, 1-1 SAC).
After piling up 390 yards on the ground in their last game against Limestone two weeks ago, the Tusculum rushing attack was neutralized completely by the Lenoir-Rhyne defense. The Pioneers finished with 27 yards in 27 carries, compared to 349 yards on 55 attempts by the Bears, who outscored the Pioneers 21-0 in the second half and held Tusculum to 94 total yards after halftime.
Tusculum freshman punter Andrew Cantrell set a program single-game record with 458 punting yards on a record-tying 11 punts. Cantrell's yardage broke the record of 424 yards set by John Gregory at Wingate on Sept. 30, 2006, while his 11 punts matched the mark set by Mike Carter against Catawba on Sept. 6, 1997 and equaled by Brice Stefanick in the infamous "Mud Bowl" game at Mars Hill on Nov. 16, 2002. Cantrell averaged 41.6 yards on his 11 punts, with a long of 50 yards.
Tusculum was forced to punt on its opening possession, and on their first offensive play Lenoir-Rhyne's Mitchell went 65 yards to the end zone for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead following the extra point by Chase Allbaugh with 12:20 left in the first quarter.
After several exchanges of punts and a lost fumble by the Pioneers, it was Tusculum that put together an eight-play, 57-yard drive which included a 44-yard pass from Pistone to Brian Burnett, and culminated with a 40-yard field goal from Joe Defatta. The kick pulled the Pioneers within 7-3 with 2:12 left in the first quarter.
The Bears answered by driving 42 yards in eight plays into Pioneer territory, but JaQuinton Alston-Thompson recovered a Willingham fumble at the Tusculum 33 in the final seconds of the first quarter. However, Lenoir-Rhyne got the ball right back as Javoris Smith intercepted Pistone at the Pioneer 48 two plays after the fumble.
Lenoir-Rhyne got the ball back after a Tusculum punt with 12:33 left in the first half, and converted three third downs and a fourth down during a 17-play, 78-yard march that ended with Willingham finding Smith for 12 yards and a touchdown. Allbaugh's conversion gave the Bears a 14-3 lead with exactly six minutes to go in the second quarter.
Tusculum scored its only touchdown as part of an eight-play, 69-yard drive that covered 2:36 and included a third-down completion from Pistone to Gary Breuklander and a pass interference penalty on a third-down incompletion. Pistone hit Belanger for 26 yards and a touchdown, with the extra point from Defatta coming with 54 seconds left and bringing the Pioneers within 14-10 at halftime.
The Pioneers forced another turnover midway through the third quarter on an interception by Leon Cunningham, but Tusculum was forced to punt to the Lenoir-Rhyne 20. On the first play of the Bears' next possession, Stevens ran for 73 yard to the Tusculum 7, then punched it in three plays later to extend the Lenoir-Rhyne lead to 21-10 with 6:26 remaining in the third quarter.
The Lenoir-Rhyne defense buckled down on the next two Tusculum possessions, holding the Pioneers to minus-seven yards in six plays. The Bears opened the fourth quarter with the ball in Pioneer territory, and capped a six-play, 46-yard drive with a 17-yard touchdown pass from Willingham to Smith for a 28-10 Lenoir-Rhyne lead with 13:10 remaining.
Tusculum drove into the red zone with under eight minutes left as Pistone hit Tory Ponder on a 49-yard completion to the L-R 10. However, a short run and three incomplete passes turned the ball back over to the Bears with 6:54 left. Three plays later, Willingham hooked up with Smith for a 78-yard touchdown pass which gave the Bears a 35-10 lead with 5:42 remaining.
Maurice Gomillion was the leading rusher for Tusculum, carrying the ball 10 times for 22 yards including a 15-yard run on the final play of the game that was the longest carry of the night for the Pioneers. Despite completing just 11 passes, Pistone threw for 217 yards thanks to nine of his completions going for 10 yards or more.
Lenoir-Rhyne punter Michael Owen nearly matched Cantrell in the punting department, kicking the ball nine times but averaging just 31.6 yards per attempt with a long of 58 yards.
On defense, Tusculum linebacker Ivan Hogans made a career-high 14 tackles, while David Johnson and Randy Hooks had nine stops apiece. Cunningham had eight tackles and 1 1/2 tackles for loss to go along with his first career interception, while Dee Alford had three pass breakups.
The Bears were paced on defense by Clayton Horn, who had 11 tackles (four solo), with 2 1/2 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Kyle Dugger added eight tackles, a fumble recovery and two pass breakups, and Sherrod Williams had a sack and seven total tackles. In all, the Bears dropped Pistone three times for a total of 20 yards in losses while Willingham was not sacked by the Pioneer defense.
Tusculum will be back on the road next Saturday, Oct. 6 for a South Atlantic Conference battle with cross-mountain rival Mars Hill. Kickoff from Meares Stadium is scheduled for 1:30 p.m.