GREENEVILLE—The Tusculum University football team will host is third nationally-ranked team this season when the eighth-ranked Lenoir-Rhyne University Bears visit Pioneer Field this Saturday for a South Atlantic Conference tilt. Kick-off is slated for 1:30 p.m.
This marks the first time Tusculum (1-4, 1-2 SAC) has played its first three home contests against nationally-ranked opponents. TU hosted No. 20 West Alabama in its Sep. 14 home-opener as well 14th-ranked Wingate in last week’s 28-21 homecoming loss at Pioneer Field.
Lenoir-Rhyne (5-0, 3-0 SAC), the defending conference champions, have rattled off 15 straight regular season victories and are riding a seven-game winning streak against the Pioneers, a run dating back to Oct. 15, 2011 in a 26-25 TU win in Greeneville. The Bears posted a 63-6 homecoming win of its own last Saturday as they knocked off league-newcomer Virginia-Wise at Moretz Stadium.
BREAST CANCER AWARENESS GAME
This week is also the Tusculum football team’s Breast Cancer Awareness Game at Pioneer Field. The stadium will be adorned in PINK in honor of October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Players will be wearing pink while PINK buddy bands will be distributed to fans, courtesy of the Susan D. Crum Foundation. Susan, a Tusculum graduate, will be serving as honorary captain for Saturday’s contest.
RECAPPING LAST WEEK
For a third week in a row, Tusculum came out on the short-end of the score despite owning an advantage in total yardage (319-256) and time of possession (3:31-29:29) over its opponent in a 28-21 SAC home loss to 14th-ranked Wingate.
TU dug itself a hole having a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown. They also gave up a TD drive on the Bulldogs first possession to take a 14-0 lead.
Tusculum redshirt quarterback Joaquin Collazo came off the bench and passed for 170 yards and a season-high three touchdowns including two to Tory Ponder as he finished with a career-best 105 receiving yards on six catches.
Linebacker Jackson Cauthen recorded a season-high 10 tackles including one for loss, while CJ Barkley finished with six stops including two for loss and a sack, the first by any Pioneer this year.
Both teams were penalized 10 times each for 100 yards apiece. The Pioneers edged the Bulldogs 20-16 in first downs as TU limited Wingate to 1-of-10 on third-down conversions and 0-of-1 on fourth down.
For the second time in his career, Lenoir-Rhyne’s Kyle Dugger returned two punts for touchdowns in the same game as the Bears thwarted visiting Virginia-Wise, 63-6. Dugger posted returns of 68 and 67 yards as Lenoir-Rhyne scored over 50 points for a third-time this season to remained undefeated. For Dugger, he was named the SAC Special Teams Player of the Week and the D2Football.com Special Teams Player of the Week.
L-R’s Dareke Young and Jace Jordan scored two touchdowns each while Tre Luttrell and Joshua Stewart recorded their first collegiate scores. Quarterback Grayson Willingham went 5-for-7 for 91 yards and two touchdowns as the L-R offense out-gained the Cavaliers in total offensive yards, 458-165.
SCOUTING THE PIONEERS
Offensively, senior All-SAC running back Jordon Shippy has been steady in the backfield averaging 73 yards per game and leads the team in scoring with five touchdowns (3 rush, 2 receiving). Shippy enters this week’s contest with over 1,500 rushing yards to his credit and will look to bounce back from last week’s outing as he was held to 34 yards.
Collazo is slated to get make his second career start at quarterback, but has appeared in all five games thus far for the Black and Orange. He was pegged as the starter in the season-opener at Delta State last month. He has passed for 446 yards with four touchdowns and averaging 89.2 passing yards per contest.
Sophomore Ajay Belanger leads the TU receiving corps with 20 receptions for 262 yards and two touchdowns, while Shippy is second with 13 grabs for 120 yards and two TD catches. Ponder his third with 11 receptions and second with 207 yards with two TDs, while Chavis Williams is fourth with nine grabs for 113 yards and a score.
On defense, Cauthen has taken over the team-lead with 33 tackles including five for loss and an interception. Linebacker Ivan Hogans is second with 30 tackles including five behind the line of scrimmage and three QB hurries. Linebacker Chris Matheus is third with 22 tackles including a team-high six for loss, while senior cornerback Dee Alford is fourth with 20 tackles with two for loss, an interception and five passes defended.
Tusculum boasts one of the top one-two punches on specials teams in Alford and redshirt freshman Thurlow Wilkins. Alford is eighth in the country in punt returns averaging 15.73 yards per return (3rd in SAC). His return average is also the fifth-best ever by a Pioneer in a season. Wilkins is seventh in the country in kickoff returns averaging 33.4 yards per return. He established a new TU single-game record with 191 kickoff return yards two weeks ago at Newberry including a 93-yarder for a touchdown, the seventh-longest in program history. As a team, TU is second in the nation in kickoff return average.
SCOUTING THE BEARS
Lenoir-Rhyne will prove to be Tusculum’s toughest challenge to date as the defending SAC Champions take the road this weekend for Greeneville.
Head coach Drew Cronic led the Bears to the NCAA II national quarterfinals last year with a 12-2 record in his inaugural campaign in Hickory.
Willingham leads the L-R offense as the junior signal caller is fifth in the nation this week in passing efficiency (182.1) and is averaging 154.8 passing yards per game while completing 61.5 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and only two interceptions. He has proven very elusive for opposing defenses as the Bears have yet to surrender a sack this season.
The L-R offense churns out 49.8 points per game (3rd in NCAA II) and 472.2 yards per contest (15th in NCAA II) including 304.6 rushing yards per outing (4th in NCAA II).
Defensively, Lenoir-Rhyne’s numbers are just a daunting allowing 13.8 points per game (11th in NCAA II) and 249.4 total yards per game (10th in NCAA II) including 62.2 rushing yards per game (7th in NCAA II). L-R defensive end Jaquan Artis ranks fourth in the country averaging 2.2 tackles for loss per game. Artis leads the team with 28 tackles including 11.5 for loss with 6.5 sacks and five QB hurries.
For the 23rd time since 1924, Tusculum and Lenoir-Rhyne will square off on the collegiate gridiron. Lenoir-Rhyne owns a 12-10 edge in the series winning the last seven meetings and nine of the last 10. Tusculum’s last win over the Bears came at Pioneer Field as TU edged the Bears, 26-25 on Oct. 15, 2011.
Lenoir-Rhyne won the first meeting on Nov. 15, 1924 as the Bears blanked TC 6-0 at College Field in Hickory, North Carolina. The two teams wouldn’t meet again until 74 years later at Pioneer Field as Tusculum posted its third straight win to open the 1998 season with a 20-5 home win over the Bears.
L-R won the first South Atlantic Conference meeting in 1999 in Hickory when Ryan Wilson scored the game-winning TD with 4:09 left in the game in a 21-14 L-R win in Hickory. Tusculum got its first league win over the Bears the following season when D.J. Starling blocked a 41-yard Bryce Rieger field goal in the fourth quarter as the Pioneers held on for a 10-9 win in the first game at the newly renovated Pioneer Field (Sep. 30, 2000).
The Tusculum win sparked five straight wins over the Bears from 2000-2004 and a stretch where the Pioneers went 8-1 over Lenoir-Rhyne in a nine-year span.