Cullowhee, N.C. – Tyrie Adams rushed for a season-high 117 yards and his scored his fourth touchdown on the ground this season, adding three TD passes to help lead Western Carolina to a wild 52-50 victory over VMI in the squad’s Southern Conference season opener Saturday afternoon in front of 12,759 fans at E.J. Whitmire Stadium / Bob Waters Field.
Leading by 15 with just over six minutes remaining in regulation after a Michael Murphy 46-yard interception return for a touchdown, the Catamounts had to hold-off a feverish Keydet rally as VMI scored two touchdowns over the final four minutes to pull to within two points. Javeon Lara hauled in a 10-yard strike from quarterback Reece Udinski at the 4:01 mark before Jakob Herres corralled a 12-yard strike to cap a 15-play scoring drive to make it 52-50.
On the ensuing two-point conversion try, Udinski’s pass attempt to Devone Humphrey dragging across the back of the end zone bounced just off the receiver’s hands, maintaining the two-point margin. But it wasn’t until Owen Cosenke high-pointed a second on-sides kick attempt by the Keydets that the Catamounts were able to celebrate the victory that moved the squad to 3-0 on the season, a first for the program since 1976.
All told on Saturday, the two teams combined for 102 total points including 13 offensive touchdowns – six rushing and seven through the air – with one TD on defense and two field goals, one aside. The two squads combined to rack-up 1,100 yards of total offense including 553 by the Catamounts and 547 for the Keydets. With an astounding 67 yards in losses including 59 in sacks, VMI was held to just 56 team rushing yards.
VMI additionally went for it 10 times on fourth down, converting six – a number that matched its third-down conversions (6-for-21).
In addition to Adams’ 117 rushing yards, two other Catamount backs approached the century mark as redshirt sophomore Donnavan Spencer rushed for 95 yards and a 17-yard third quarter touchdown while Connell Young finished with 89 yards on the ground, adding three receptions out of the backfield for 19 yards.
Adams finished 21-of-33 for 229 yards and two touchdowns while being intercepted twice – the first two turnovers of the season for the Catamounts. His favorite target was redshirt junior transfer WR Nate Mullen who hauled in a career-best eight passes for 74 yards and a score, also taking a pitch from Adams on an option play for a first quarter rushing TD.
Ahead by seven, 21-14, after a third Quan Myers rushing touchdown, the Keydets missed a golden opportunity to stretch the lead to two scores midway through the second quarter. Adams saw a pass deflect in-and-out of Young’s hands and into the waiting arms of Collin Loftis. The Keydets drove to the 18-yard line but failed on a fourth-down pass attempt on a would-be fake field goal. VMI held the Catamounts to a 3-and-out on their next possession, but again the Keydets were held in check and limited to a five-play drive. The Catamounts took advantage, capping a seven-play drive with a 32-yard TD pass to Daquan Patten, who finished with a career-high seven receptions for 81 yards.
Trailing at intermission for the first time this season, 24-21, Western Carolina (3-0, 1-0 SoCon) scored touchdowns on consecutive possessions out of the halftime locker room that proved to be a big turning point in Saturday’s game. Adams capped a quick six-play drive with an 11-yard strike to Mullen before converting a short field into a 16-yard TD pass to Cosenke to grab an 11-point lead, 35-24, midway through the third quarter.
But every time the Catamounts managed to add some breathing room, the resilient Keydets had an answer to keep within arm’s length. Will Horton split the uprights from 37-yards out at the 7:45 mark of the fourth quarter ahead of Murphy’s INT return for a score to help set-up the wild finish. Horton added six successful PATs on the day.
Despite the gaudy, videogame-like numbers put up by both offenses, the defensive units had their bright spots on Saturday. WCU continued its strong play up front, collecting six sacks to give the squad 16 through the first three games this season. Senior nose tackle Solomon Clark set a school-record with 5.5 tackles for loss including a record-tying four sacks as the Catamounts dropped Udinski six times and finished with a dozen TFLs. Classmate Mitchell Chancey matched a career-high with 12 tackles – his third, double-digit tackle game of the season – while DB Shamon Elliott did establish a new personal benchmark, matching Chancey with a dozen stops.
For VMI (0-4, 0-3 SoCon) Udinski set school records with 491 yards on 43-of-72 passing with four TD passes. He spread the football to nine different receivers with Javeon Lara catching nine passes – two for scores – and 143 receiving yards. Seemingly lost in the insanity of offensive production on Saturday was Keydet tailback Quan Myers who tallied 76 rushing yards while scoring three TDs on the ground in the first half. Uzoma Kpaduwa and A.J. Smith finished with 12 and 10 tackles, respectively while Loftis collected both Keydet interceptions.
Western Carolina plays its next two games on the road, traveling to Greenville, S.C., to face the Furman Paladins next Saturday, Sept. 29 with a 2:00 pm kickoff at Paladin Stadium.