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Tusculum edges Mars Hill 31-28 in key SAC match-up

Tusculum edges Mars Hill 31-28 in key SAC match-up

MARS HILL, N.C. --- The Tusculum football team jumped out to a 17-0 lead and held off a Mars Hill rally at the end as the Pioneers prevailed 31-28 over the Lions Saturday afternoon at Meares Stadium.

The Tusculum quarterback duo of Tommy Pistone and Alex Ogle combined for 293 yards through the air and three touchdowns while the TU ground game churned out 208 rushing yards and a score.

The Pioneer defense forced three Mars Hill turnovers with two of them resulting into 10 points and the other coming on a forced fumble and recovery by Malik Goodman in the fourth quarter with TU holding onto a 10-point lead.

Tusculum (3-2, 2-1 SAC) accounted for 501 total yards while Mars Hill (2-4, 2-2 SAC) totaled 469 yards.

The Pioneers have won four of the last six meetings against the Lions with the last seven games against their cross-mountain rivals being decided by seven points or less.

TU senior running back Lor'renzo Pratt rushed for a career-high 83 yards on 11 carries and a touchdown, while Maurice Gomillion posted 18 attempts for 77 yards.  Pistone went 14-of-29 for 179 yards and two touchdowns with an interception, while Ogle went 10-of-15 for 114 yards, one TD and an interception.

TU's Tory Ponder posted seven receptions for 87 yards and a score, while Jacob Moss had three grabs for 30 yards and two touchdowns.  Ajay Belanger had six catches for 69 yards, while Deshawn Davis finished with five receptions for 81 yards.

Mars Hill quarterback Austin Brown finished with 317 total offensive yards.  He went 19-of-34 for 226 yards and a touchdown, while also rushing 14 times for 91 yards.  Jaqueveon Watkins led all players with 98 yards on seven carries including a touchdown.

Defensively, Ivan Hogans led the Pioneers with 11 tackles, while Dee Alford finished with nine stops.  Goodman tallied eight tackles with a pass break-up, while Nelson Louis also had eight tackles including one for loss.

The Pioneers took the opening kickoff and marched 65 yards on eight plays with Pistone finding Moss on a 14-yard touchdown pass.  Joe Defatta's kick made it 7-0 with 11:06 remaining in the first quarter.

Tusculum got the ball back when Brown was intercepted by David Johnson at the Mars Hill 30-yard line.  Pistone's 26-yard pass to Ponder was wiped off the board due to a TU holding penalty on third down.  Pistone came through with an 11-yard completion to Belanger to set up a 43-yard field goal by Defatta as Tusculum led 10-0 with 8:30 left in the opening frame.

The two teams exchanged punts but Mars Hill was driving heading into the second quarter.  On the first play of the new frame, Craig Rucker was stripped of the ball by Isaiah Dunn and was recovered by TU teammate Josh Forrest at the MHU 44.  Pistone completed a 19-yard pass to Gary Breuklander on the opening play of the drive.  Pistone ran for five yards and Maxwell Joseph posted rushes of 6, 10 and 1 yard to the MHU 3.  But on the next play, TU was whistled for offensive pass interference moving the ball back to the MHU 19.  The Pioneers bounced back as Pratt ran for seven yards and on third-and-goal, Pistone completed his second TD pass of the day to Moss, this time for 12 yards out as TU extended its lead to 17-0 with 11:25 before halftime.

Mars Hill answered on its next possession with a 10-play, 74-yard drive with Rucker scoring on a three-yard run.  Tanner Fox made the extra point to cut the deficit to 17-7 with 7:44 to go in the period.

Ogle took over at quarterback on the next drive as he and the Pioneers marched 75 yards in eight plays taking 5:15 off the clock culminating with a 19-yard TD pass to Ponder as TU led by 17 again at 247 with 2:32 left.

Mars Hill was forced to punt on its next possession as TU took over at its own 43-yard line with 43 seconds remaining.  Ogle completed a 15-yard pass to Ponder and followed with a 17-yard completion to Davis to get to the MHU 25.  Defatta got off a 42-yard field goal try as time expired but his attempted went wide left as Tusculum settled for a 24-7 lead heading into the locker room.

Mars Hill took the opening possession in the second half and Brown moved the Lions into Tusculum territory thanks to a 24-yard completion to Luke Grant and Watkins rambled for 25 yards to the TU 30.  MHU got the ball to the 21-yard line but on fourth-and-one, Brown's pass was hurried by Forrest as the Pioneers took over on downs.

Tusculum took over and advanced into Lions territory all the way to the MHU 26.  But on second-down and one yard to go, Pistone was intercepted by Chris Ferdinand at the 18-yard line.  MHU converted the Tusculum miscue into points as Brown completed passes of 13, 21, 19 and 16 yards to get to the TU 13.  Four straight rushing plays by Roberts including a four-yard TD run brought the Lions to within 10 at 24-14 with 4:33 left in the third.

The momentum was now with the Lions and on TU's third play of its next possession. Pistone completed a long pass play to Davis, but on the play, Ferdinand stripped the ball away with teammate Carl Robertgeau coming up with the recovery and returned it five yards to the MHU 41.  Seven plays later Watkins ran in for a 42-yard touchdown to as the TU lead of 17 points was trimmed to three at 24-21 at the 1:34 mark of the third.

Heading into the fourth quarter, Tusculum went to the ground game as Gomillion ran for 9 and 4 yards to the MHU 41.  After an incomplete pass, Pratt took care of the rest with back-to-back 19-yard carries and punched it from three yards out as Tusculum led 31-21 with 12:32 left in the game.

Mars Hill took advantage of a roughing the passer penalty followed by a Watkins 14-yard rush and a 14-yard completion from Brown to Javon Harbison to the TU 32.  Watkins ran for 13 yards to the TU 11 but Goodman came up with the defensive play of the day with the strip and recovery as Tusculum took over with 9:48 left and the 10-point lead.

Ogle and the Pioneers milked eight minutes off the clock and moved into Mars Hill territory converting four first downs.  But on third down and 18 to go, Ogle was intercepted by Cameron Wrice who returned the pick 30 yards to the MHU 48 before being stopped by Ajay Belanger with 1:49 to go.

Out of timeouts, the Lions put together a nine-play scoring drive with Brown completing a 12-yard TD to Clarenton Cowart on the game's final play as time expired.

Tusculum recorded a season-high 28 first downs, while the Lions posted 26 in the loss.  TU went 8-of-12 on third down while MHU went 6-of-14.  The Pioneers, who entered the game as the least penalized team in the conference, was whistled for a season-high 13 penalties for 116 yards.  MHU was flagged five times for 77 yards.

Tusculum returns home next Saturday when they host Newberry for a 3 p.m. kickoff in the Pioneers' annual homecoming game.

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