Cullowhee, N.C. - Terryon Robinson hauled in a 53-yard scoring strike from Tyrie Adams inside the final minute of regulation on Saturday afternoon as Western Carolina rallied past the VMI Keydets to score a 32-29 victory on Hall of Fame and Senior Day at E.J. Whitmire Stadium / Bob Waters Field.
But it was the Catamount defensive unit and special teams that keyed the come-from-behind victory and proved to be the difference makers as WCU snapped a six-game seasonal slide with their 14th-consecutive victory over VMI, remaining perfect in Cullowhee at 12-0 in the all-time series.
Western Carolina (2-7, 1-6 SoCon) recorded three interceptions and three quarterback sacks on defense, and blocked a total of four VMI placekicks including two field goal attempts and two PATs en route to its third-consecutive victory on Hall of Fame / Senior Day in Cullowhee. Sophomore kicker Logan Howard got in on the special teams action, splitting the uprights on a career-long 50-yard field goal -- the longest by a Catamount kicker since 2011 -- in the winning effort.
Junior DL Ezavian Dunn was credited with two of the four blocked kicks on special teams, with freshman line mate Jake Helms and redshirt junior Tahjai Watt swatting kicks that helped spark the Catamounts to victory.
"It was a great team win," said WCU head coach Mark Speir during post-game comments with the media. "It took all three phases today; special teams scoring on that opening kickoff. The defense coming up with three picks. And the offense not panicking and when it counted most, our players went and made plays."
Speir added, "To come in and on senior day with a bunch of great seniors who are going to be great people and great ambassadors for Western Carolina University, to send them out like this was special. And I couldn't be more proud of our coaches the way they circled up the wagons this week especially our defensive staff -- those guys did a great job."
Robinson -- a redshirt junior who came to Western Carolina as a part of the senior class playing their final home game in Cullowhee on Saturday -- slipped behind the Keydet secondary and ran under an Adams pass setting off a jubilant celebration in the end zone. The drive was spurred by a hook-and-ladder play with Robinson and Detrez Newsome on a 3rd down and three to go play, and continued with a shoe-string catch and 10-yard gain another upperclassman in redshirt senior TE Michael Helms Jr.
WCU had to regroup quickly, though, to attempt a two-point conversion. Senior Spearman Robinson took a pitch from the QB Adams, who then slipped into the purple & gold clad end zone and wrestled a reception away from the defender to provide the three-point edge.
On the second play of the ensuing possession, senior DB Trey Morgan intercepted a pass and raced 35 yards for what looked to be a game-sealing touchdown. However, the play was negated by a defensive penalty with a post-snap infraction tacking on 15 additional yards to put the ball at the WCU 35.
But that's where the WCU defense drew the line in the sand. Tahjai Watt secured WCU's third sack of the day, powering past his offensive counterpart. Two plays later, Morgan put the finishing touches on the victory with his 10th-career pick.
Adams completed 21-of-31 passes to finish with 207 yards and the late TD through the air, spreading the ball around to six different players. Terryon Robinson led the way with nine catches for 92 yards and the score, while Spearman Robinson caught five passes for 57 yards.
Newsome rushed for 111 yards on 19 carries while his counterparts -- redshirt sophomore Corey Holloway and true freshman Connell Young -- both plowed in for rushing touchdowns in the second quarter. Newman finished with 180 all-purpose yards.
Western Carolina was fast out of the gates on Saturday, scoring eight seconds into the game on the opening kickoff despite being the kicking team. Skyler Matheson punched the football loose on the game's opening kickoff where Keion Crossen scooped-and-scored from 19 yards out to give the home squad a 7-0 advantage.
VMI booted through a 41-yard field goal to trim the margin to 7-3 early in the second quarter. Crossen then struck again, intercepting an Austin Coulling pass and returning it 65 yards to the VMI 11 yard line. Three plays later, Young dove into the end zone to give WCU a 14-3 lead.
The Keydets capped a 67-yard drive with an eight-yard Tyain Smith touchdown rush to make it 14-9 with Dunn swatting the extra point attempt to keep the margin at five. WCU carried a 21-9 lead into intermission as Holloway capped a 14-play, 78-yard march with a run up the middle from a yard away.
A Catamount turnover thwarted a solid drive out of the halftime locker room with VMI capitalizing on the takeaway to close the margin to six, 21-15, on Smith's second score of the day -- the second coming on a six-yard reception from Coulling.
WCU added Howard's career-long field goal to stretch the margin back to nine, 24-15, before the teams traded punts to end the third quarter.
VMI (3-6, 1-5 SoCon) went up top to its go-to receiver Aaron Sanders for a 46-yard reception to set-up Smith's third score of the game, a one-yard TD plunge to make it a one-point, 24-23, game with much of the fourth quarter remaining. After halting a Catamount drive, WCU punter Ian Berryman pinned VMI back at its own eight-yard line. However, the Keydets marched 92 yards in 13 plays with Daz Palmer scoring from two yards out to hand VMI its first lead of the day, 29-24, after the two-point try failed.
The Keydets managed to get the football back inside the game's final four minutes by stopping the Catamounts on a fourth-down try. WCU's defense rose to the occasions, stopping VMI and forcing the visitors into a 34-yard field goal attempt and a would-be eight-point edge. However, that's when Watt leapt behind the line of scrimmage and deflected the kick, setting-up WCU's offensive heroics in the closing seconds.
Senior Tyson Dickson led the Catamount defensive attack with nine total tackles including a sack, while A.J. Newman was also credited with nine tackles with half a stop for loss. Fred Payne and Tahjai Watt both finished with eight tackles apiece, with Watt posted a pair of sacks and the blocked field goal.
In addition to Crossen's interception, senior Coleman Cunningham tallied his first career pick with Morgan rounding out the day with WCU's third. Crossen added two tackles while Cunningham had four and Morgan finished with six stops.
Coulling, playing for injured starter Al Cobb, completed 18-of-25 passes with the three interceptions and one touchdown pass. Palmer led the Keydets ground attack with 136 rushing yards and a score, while Tyain Smith rushed for 79 yards and two TDs, hauling in a pair of passes for nine yards and a score. VMI's Javeon Lara caught four passes for 100 yards, while Keydet leading receiver Aaron Sanders was held to 57 yards on three catches.
Western Carolina will wrap-up its 2016 season with back-to-back road games in the Palmetto State, beginning next Saturday as the Catamounts visit Furman (2-7, 2-4 SoCon) at Paladin Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 4:00 pm.