GREENEVILLE—The Tusculum Pioneers will play its home finale this Saturday afternoon when the Sons of Davy Crockett host the Mars Hill Lions in the annual Battle of Sam’s Gap at Pioneer Field. Kick-off time is set for 1:30 p.m.
After starting the season 1-5, the Pioneers have rallied with three straight victories including last Saturday’s 32-14 home win over Catawba College. The Tusculum offense racked up 366 rushing yards on the day, while the Pioneer defense limited the Catawba Indians to 148 total yards and eight first downs. TU redshirt freshman tailback Thurlow Wilkins ran for a season-best 153 yards on 15 carries including a 63-yard touchdown. It was Wilkins second straight 100-yard game, as well as for senior Jordon Shippy who tallied 111 yards on 13 attempts before leaving the game in the third quarter due to injury.
Mars Hill’s bid for the NCAA II Playoffs took a hit in last week’s 48-21 home loss to Carson-Newman as the Lions and Eagles are now tied for third place in the league standings. MHU receiver Craig Rucker put his name in the SAC and school record books for career TD receptions (42). He posted 15 catches for 199 yards against the Eagles, giving him a MHU record 276 receptions for his career. MHU sophomore quarterback Jimmy Urzua threw for 314 yards and three touchdowns. But the C-N offense grounded out 388 rushing yards and the defense forced four MHU turnovers.
A Tusculum victory this week would secure the Pioneers a 5-win season for a third straight year. The last time TU won five or more games in three consecutive seasons was from 2006-2008. It would also mark Tusculum’s first four-game winning streak since ending the 2014 season with four consecutive wins.
Today marks the final home game for 27 Tusculum seniors including Dee Alford, Christian Bell, Will Boney, Keveon Broadwater, Grant Cordell, Deshawn Davis, Isaiah Dunn, Rhomel Fields, Josh Forrest, Romeo Gallegos, Malik Goodman, Javon Green, Brandon Harrison, Solomon Hunter, David Johnson, Conner Johnston, Andre Jones, Carter Mangel, Chris Matheus, DeAndre Milner, Matt Price, Lenny Roundtree, Jordon Shippy, Colton Strickland, Ashton Watson, Hunter Weismore and Devin Woodson.
SCOUTING THE PIONEERS
The Pioneers are battling to keep their hopes alive for a winning season but they must be victorious in their final two games including Saturday’s SAC clash with the Mars Hill Lions.
The Tusculum offense came to life with 32 unanswered points while posting 478 total yards in a 32-14 dismantling of Catawba College last weekend for TU’s third consecutive victory.
The Tusculum defense recorded three interceptions including two from senior David Johnson and one from senior Dee Alford. Catawba finished with 148 yards of offense with 87 of those yards coming on its final drive of the game.
The linebacker duo of Jackson Cauthen and Ivan Hogans have paced the Pioneers defensively so far. Cauthen leads the team with 60 tackles, including a TU-best 13 for loss and three sacks. He also has two interceptions including one he returned for a TD two weeks ago against UNC Pembroke. In that game, he made a fourth-down stop in the final minute to secure SAC Defensive Player of the Week accolades.
Hogans is second with his 58 tackles including eight for loss and four quarterback hurries. The 2018 All-Region and All-SAC honoree joined Tusculum’s 200-tackle club against UNCP and his 30 career tackles for loss are ranked in the TU top-10.
Senior free safety Malik Goodman is third on the roster with 41 tackles including two for loss, one interception and three pass break-ups. Goodman is closing in on the 200-tackle club for his career needing 13 more stops to join Hogans in the exclusive group.
Dee Alford is fourth with 38 tackles, but is tied for the team lead with 12 passes defended (1.3 avg – 5th in SAC/37th in NCAA II) including three interceptions and nine pass break-ups. He recorded his eighth career interception last week against Catawba to move to fifth in the TU record book. Alford’s 140 interception return yards are third in school history, while his 32 career passes defended are also tied for third.
Alford has also been a threat on Tusculum’s punt return team where he is third in the SAC averaging 14.4 yards per return, which is also the ninth-best average in the country. For the season, Alford’s average is ranked fifth in TU history while he is second in both punt returns (26) and punt returns yards (375). He is He is five returns and 18 yards away from the 2001 single-season record marks posted by All-American Donald Amaker.
Alford is listed third in the TU record book for both punt returns (49) and punt return yards (538) while his 10.98 return average is fourth in school history.
Senior David Johnson also shares the team lead with his 12 passes defended (9 break-ups, 3 interceptions). Johnson has made 26 tackles including six for loss and two sacks.
Senior linebacker Chris Matheus returned to the line-up last week and has made 24 tackles including seven for loss. For his
On offense, senior tailback Jordon Shippy has led the Pioneers rushing for 731 yards (10th in TU history), which are second in the conference and 48th in the nation. He is averaging 81.2 rushing yards per game including 5.1 yards per carry. He has scored five touchdowns this year (3 rush, 2 receiving) and is closing in on the 2,000 rushing yard plateau for his career. Shippy (1,917) needs 83 yards to become only the fifth player in program history to eclipse 2,000 yards. He has recorded four 100-yard rushing performances this year, giving him six for his career, which are tied for the third-most in school history. When Shippy goes for 100, the Pioneers are 5-1 during his career.
Thurlow Wilkins is coming off his best rushing game of his young career as he ran for 153-yards last week. He finished the game with 211 all-purpose yards including 58 yards on his two kickoff returns. He is second on the team with 305 rushing yards on 44 attempts and averages 6.9 yards per carry. He has rushed for two touchdowns and posted a 93-yard kickoff return earlier this season for a score. Wilkins leads the SAC averaging 32.9 yards per kickoff return which is sixth in the country. His 118.71 all-purpose yards per game average is third in the SAC and 50th in Division II.
Sophomore Maurice Gomillion is third on the team rushing for 218 yards on 51 carries including a season-best 83 yards last week against Catawba.
The redshirt freshmen duo of Bryce Moore and Joaquin Collazo have taken a bulk of the snaps at quarterback. Moore has garnered seven starts, while Collazo has two starts under his belt. Collazo took over for Moore in the second quarter last week as he managed the offense into 32 points including his 30-yard touchdown pass to Ajay Belanger.
Collazo has passed for 622 yards with six touchdowns and six interceptions. Moore has 865 passing yards to his credit with six touchdowns and seven picks. Senior Hunter Weismore has played in four contests where he has passed for 125 yards with a TD and one interception.
Belanger and fellow sophomore Tory Ponder have been the top two receiving targets this year. Belanger leads the team with 29 receptions and is second with 394 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Ponder leads the team in receiving yards (440) and TD catches (5), while he is second with 25 receptions. Shippy is third with 18 catches for 184 yards. Deshawn Davis (11-133), Jacob Moss (11-123) and Chavis Williams (10-127) each have over 10 catches and over 100 yards on their respective lists. The trio has also made one TD catch apiece.
The trio of Carter Mangel, Tyron Hundley and Conner Johnston have manned the tight end position for the Pioneers. Mangel has made three catches for 17 yards, while Hundley has two grabs to his credit for 14 yards. Johnston has one reception for 12 yards.
The Tusculum offensive line unit remained intact for three straight games with the corps of Keveon Broadwater, Rick Jeantihomee, Bailey Herring, Brandon Harrison and Christian Coulture starting in consecutive games. For Broadwater and Harrison, this will be their final home game, along with senior Grant Cordell, who has also seen playing time this year.
On special teams, Greeneville redshirt freshman Eli Shepherd has been very consistent at placekicker handling the extra point and field goal duties, while Alan Andrzejewski is manning kickoffs. Shepherd has gone 7-for-9 on field goals this year and 21-of-22 on extra points for his team-leading 42 points. He has connected on three field goals in each of his last two games.
Sophomore punter Andrew Cantrell is averaging 35.5 yards per punt resulting in 12 kicks inside the 20-yard line and 11 fair catches. Cantrell has recorded 101 punts in his career and his 37.25 punting average is ninth in school history.
SCOUTING MARS HILL
The Mars Hill Lions have been the surprise of the league this year as MHU is tied for third place after being picked to finish seventh in the SAC Coaches’ Poll to start the year. The Lions have accounted for wins over St. Augustine’s, UVa-Wise, Newberry, Limestone and Catawba for their five victories. A win over the Pioneers would secure MHU a winning season heading into next week’s home finale with nationally-ranked Wingate.
MHU head coach Tim Clifton, the winningest active football mentor in the league and the second-winningest coach in conference history, will have his squad prepped and ready when the Lions visit Greeneville on Saturday.
Senior wideout Craig Rucker has been a one-man wrecking crew as his 1,116 receiving yards are second in the nation while his 13 TD catches are third in NCAA Division II. He has posted a touchdown catch in eight of his nine games this season and has eclipsed 100-yards on five occasions in 2019 including last week’s 199-yard performance. Two weeks against Catawba he scored four touchdowns including two TD catches, one rush and on a punt return. He has scored 102 points this year, averaging 11.3 points per game which is third in the country.
Rucker, a 2018 All-American consensus All-American and SAC Offensive Player of the Year, has his eyes on repeating in capturing those accolades again.
Quarterback Jimmy Urzua leads the SAC in passing yards with 1,632, while his 181.3 yards per game average is also best in the conference. His 16 passing touchdowns are listed second in the SAC (38th in NCAA II).
Senior Javon Harbison is second in the receiving corps with his 26 receptions for 418 yards and four touchdowns. Tyler Ferguson has posted 29 catches for 334 yards.
Elijah Jett leads the Lions in rushing with 480 yards and a touchdown, while teammate Christopher Roberts is second with 413 yards on 96 carries and two scores.
The Pioneers will have to be on their toes as seven different MHU players have attempted at least one pass this year accounting for 27 touchdowns with 15 interceptions.
Defensively, freshman linebacker Dexter Fitzpatrick leads the Lions with 67 tackles including six for loss, one sack and 10 QB hurries. Senior free safety Carl Robertgeau is second with 55 stops, but leads the team with five interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Junior Tanner Fox handles all of the punting and kicking duties for Mars Hill. He is 29-of-32 on extra points, and has attempted only two field goal tries. Fox is averaging 34.6 yards on his punts with 10 being pinned inside the 20-yard line.
The 36th renewal of the Tusculum/Mars Hill football series will be held this week as the Pioneers host their cross-mountain rival in the Battle of Sam’s Gap. Tusculum leads the series 20-13-2.
Since 2000, the Pioneers have won 13 of the last 19 meetings with the Lions. MHU captured a thrilling 23-20 overtime win in the 2012 meeting. In 2010, the Lions outlasted TU in a shootout, 45-39. Prior to that, TU rattled off seven consecutive wins in the series, including three times at Mars Hill.
Tusculum won seven of the first eight games in the series that started in 1922. The Lions posted eight consecutive victories from 1936 to 1999 (Teams did not meet on the gridiron from 1939-1993).
From 2000-2009, Tusculum went 9-1 against the Lions, including a stretch of seven in a row from 2003-2009. MHU won three straight from 2010-2012.
Twenty (20) of the 35 previous meetings have been decided by seven points or less. The last seven in a row have been by a TD or less and nine of the last 13 have been by six points or fewer.