GREENEVILLE—Thurlow Wilkins rushed for a season-best 153 yards and a touchdown in Tusculum University’s 32-14 South Atlantic Conference football win over visiting Catawba College Saturday afternoon at Pioneer Field.
TU trailed in 7-0 in the opening quarter, but scored 32 unanswered points to record the victory and notch its first three-game winning streak since 2014.
After starting the season 1-5, the Pioneers (4-5, 3-3 SAC) have accounted for three straight wins to climb into a tie for fifth place in the league standings. The Catawba Indians (1-8, 0-7 SAC) remain winless in conference play and suffer their seventh loss in a row.
Tusculum amassed 478 total yards including a season-high 366 on the ground for the seventh-most rushing yards in program history. Wilkins 153-yard day came on 15 carries for his second straight 100-yard performance, following up last week’s 106 yards in a win over UNC Pembroke. Senior Jordon Shippy ran for over 100 yards in as many games with his 111-yard afternoon on 13 attempts before coming out of the game in the third quarter due to injury. Sophomore Maurice Gomillion rushed for 83 yards on 11 carries for the Pioneers.
Wilkins and Shippy become the first Pioneers to post multiple 100-yard performances in back-to-back games in Tusculum history.
The TU defense limited Catawba to 148 yards and eight first downs on the day. The Pioneers dominated time of possession holding onto the football for 37:20 which is a season-best and the fourth-highest in school history. Catawba generated 87 of its 148 yards on its final possession when TU had the contest in hand.
Tusculum recorded three interceptions including two from senior David Johnson and one by senior cornerback Dee Alford. Johnson’s two interceptions are tied for the most in TU history and the first two-pick game since Jay Boyd in 2018 against Limestone.
TU linebacker and reigning SAC Defensive Player of the Week Jackson Cauthen led the Pioneers with six tackles including three for loss and a sack in the end zone resulting in a safety for the Black and Orange.
Greeneville freshman kicker Eli Shepherd, who is the reigning SAC Special Teams Player of the Week, had another solid day as he tallied a season-best 12 points finishing with three field goals for a second consecutive week. His 12-point effort is tied for fifth in Tusculum history and surpassing his personal best of 11 markers in last week’s win over Pembroke.
Catawba freshman quarterback Kaylon Wade, who was making his second career start under center, passed for 131 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions while being sacked four times.
Catawba linebacker LJ Melvin led all players with 10 tackles including two sacks and returned a fumble 60 yards to set up the Indians’ first touchdown to give the visitors a 7-0 lead.
It was a sluggish start for the Pioneers as starting quarterback Bryce Moore was intercepted on TU’s opening drive. He would fumble on TU’s second possession in Catawba territory which was picked up by Melvin and returned it to the TU 20.
On third down, Wade completed a 15-yard pass to Dominic Burnam for the Catawba touchdown. Clayton Crile’s extra point gave the Indians a 7-0 lead with 4:41 left in the quarter.
The Pioneers took the ensuing possession and drove deep into Catawba territory as Moore completed a 24-yard pass to Ajay Belanger to the TU 40. Moore scrambled for a 13-yard gain on third down to the Catawba 42. Moore ended the quarter with a 30-yard completion to Belanger who made a diving catch at the one-yard line.
Tusculum could not punch it in though on three plays and would settle for a 21-yard field goal from Shepherd as TU trimmed the deficit to 7-3 with 13:27 left before halftime.
Later in the frame, Joaquin Collazo took over at quarterback for Tusculum as Wilkins ran for 32 yards on three carries to the Catawba. Collazo’s first pass of the day would strike pay-dirt as he found Tory Ponder in the back of the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown as TU had its first lead of the day at 10-7 with 6:27 remaining in the second quarter.
The Catawba Indians went three plays and were forced to punt as the Pioneers took over at the TU 30. Tusculum moved into Catawba territory sparked by a 24-yard completion from Collazo to Deshawn Davis. But the drive stalled and Shepherd’s 46-yard field goal attempt would be blocked as the Pioneers headed to the locker room leading by three (10-7).
The two teams exchanged possessions to open the second half with each ending in a punt. TU punter Andrew Cantrell pinned Catawba at its nine-yard line. A critical false start penalty on third down moved Catawba to its own 5. Wade rolled out to pass but was taken down in the end zone by Cauthen for the safety and a 12-7 Tusculum lead with 10:03 left in the quarter.
Later in the quarter, Belanger took a lateral pass and ran 15 yards to the TU 37. On the following play, Wilkins sprinted through traffic and got into the secondary where he ran to the end zone for a 63-yard touchdown to extend the Tusculum lead to 19-7 with 4:46 to go in the third.
In the start of the fourth quarter, Alford intercepted Wade and returned the pick 35 yards to the CAT 31. For Alford, it was his third interception of the season and eighth of his career tying him for fifth place with Martez Thompkins (2014-2017). Alford also has 140 interception return yards which are the third-most in school history.
The Pioneers would convert the miscue to points as Shepherd connected on his third field goal of the afternoon with a 35-yarder as the Pioneers extended the lead to 22-7 with 10 minutes left in the game.
Johnson would come up with his first interception of the game as he picked off Wade near midfield and returned the ball 38 yards to the CAT 9. Two plays later, graduate student Will Boney scored his first career rushing touchdown from two yards out to extend the lead to 29-7 with 8:25 remaining.
The two teams would exchange interceptions as Johnson came up with his second pick of the contest and third of the season. But Collazo would be intercepted for a second time on the day by Cris Page, giving him five interceptions on the year.
Tusculum would force a 29-yard punt by Crile in the end zone as TU took over at the CAT 35. The Pioneers would get another 35-yard field goal from Shepherd to cap the TU scoring and a 32-7 lead with 4:43 on the clock.
The Indians marched 87 yards on eight plays which was capped off by a 39-yard pass from Wade which was tipped by Tusculum and fell into the hands of Will Sheehan for his first collegiate touchdown.
Wilkins finished the game with 211 all-purpose yards including his two kickoff returns covering 58 yards.
Belanger posted four receptions for 68 yards as the Pioneers finished with 112 receiving yards on the day.
Crile finished the day averaging 40.3 yards on his seven punts. Cantrell accounted for 36.5 yard average on his two attempts, including the 100th of his career becoming only the seventh Pioneer punter to join that exclusive group.
Tusculum will host cross mountain rival Mars Hill University next Saturday for a 1:30 p.m. contest at Pioneer Field in TU’s 2019 home finale. It will also be the final home game for 28 Tusculum seniors.