Cullowhee, N.C. - Western Carolina tailback Detrez Newsome rumbled for a go-ahead touchdown, hitting the right pylon to put the Catamounts ahead with 93 seconds remaining in regulation on Saturday night at E.J. Whitmire Stadium / Bob Waters Field. But it wasn't until a last-second pass deflection would allow what remained of 12,018 fans to unleash a post-game celebration that was over a decade in the making.
Senior defensive back Keion Crossen batted away a pass attempt in the back of the end zone as time expired on the final play of the game as Western Carolina upset the 17th-ranked Samford Bulldogs, 38-34, in the Southern Conference opener for both squads. The victory was WCU's first over a nationally-ranked NCAA Football Championship Subdivision team since 2006, halting a 27-game slide.
After the Catamounts pulled back in front of Saturday's see-saw affair, Samford quarterback Devlin Hodges orchestrated a 98-yard drive, moving his squad off their own 1-yard line to the corresponding hash at the other end of the field. With first-and-goal from the 3-yard line, the Bulldogs had a pair of one-yard rushes sandwiched around an incomplete pass to heighten the drama in setting-up a fourth-and-goal play.
Rolling to his right with his eyes in the end zone, Hodges kept the play alive with his scramble before hurling a bullet towards an open receiver in the end zone. However, using a burst of speed that helped him win the Southern Conference 100-meter dash last spring, Crossen closed the gap and knocked the ball away from an open Andrew Harris to set-off the wild celebration.
Both offenses combined for 1,222 total yards in Saturday's shoot-out -- but in the end, it was the one-yard not gained that proved to be the difference.
Coming off of back-to-back, 100-plus yard rushing performances including a school-record 288 on the ground against Davidson, Newsome was bottled-up much of the game by the Samford defense. However, the Raeford, N.C., native found success in special teams which bled over to the offense. He finished with 215 all-purpose yards -- his 18th-straight game over the century mark -- that included 96 rushing yards and a pair of touchdown scores.
Western Carolina redshirt sophomore quarterback Tyrie Adams accounted for 464 yards of total offense including a career-high 152 rushing yards that featured a 23-yard score. He also threw for 312 yards and a touchdown on 19 total completions. Two Catamount receivers eclipsed the century mark on Saturday including redshirt senior Terryon Robinson with eight catches for 124 yards and a score and classmate Steffon Hill with five receptions for 104 yards.
The SoCon Preseason Player of the Year, Hodges lived-up to the billing. The Kimberly, Ala., product passed for a Samford school-record 516 yards -- the third-best, single-game performance in SoCon history -- on 38 completions with four touchdowns. Receivers Chris Shelling and Kelvin McKnight both hauled in 12 passes apiece with Shelling finishing with a career-high 245 yard and a touchdown while McKnight scored three times through the air with 194 receiving yards.
Samford added 91 yards on the ground collectively as a team -- 70 of which came in the first half.
Western Carolina (3-1, 1-0 SoCon) raced out to a 10-point lead in the first quarter as Will Horton split the uprights on a career-long 40-yard field goal on its first possession before Corey Holloway plunged in from five yards out to cap a 73-yard drive.
However, Samford responded with consecutive scoring strikes to McKnight from six and 20-yards out, respectively, to cap long drives of 74 and 97 yards to push the ranked visitors ahead, 14-10. The lead was short-lived, though, as the Catamounts responded just over a minute later, moving 80 yards in just three plays as Adams dropped a dime to Robinson in stride for a 59-yard scoring strike to provide the halftime tally, 17-14.
WCU missed an opportunity to add to its lead before heading to the locker room, driving 72 yards to the goal line before a fumble was recovered in the end zone by Samford for a touchback to prevent the gap from widening.
Consecutive second half scores by Samford -- and a 10-point swing -- that included a 7-yard TD pass from Hodges to Shelling and a 32-yard Jordan Weaver field goal pushed the Bulldogs ahead, 24-17, before Adams was able to knot the game for the first time at 24 with 6:45 remaining in the third quarter.
Following a second Weaver field goal, Newsome capped an 80-yard drive with a two-yard TD rush to make it 31-27 in favor of the home squad with momentum swung back towards WCU. However, a 45-minute lightning delay stemmed the tide for the final 7:23.
After the unscheduled intermission, the two teams traded punts with Samford benefiting from the best field position, using the shortened field to reclaim the lead, 34-31, with 3:22 showing on the game clock as Hodges found McKnight for a third score.
On the subsequent drive, Adams marched the Catamounts 75 yards in eight plays, ignited by a 15-yard Newsome rush and spurred by passes of 15 yards to Connell Young and a 29-yard pitch-and-catch to Robinson to move into scoring position. Newsome capped the drive with his determined four-yard stretch off the right edge to setup the wild finish that put an exclamation point on a highly entertaining league opener.
WCU safety Marvin Tillman finished with a team-high 14 tackles including 10 solo stops and a tackle for loss to pace the Catamount defense. Crossen finished with eight tackles with one for loss, adding two pass break-ups -- the most important coming at the end of the game. Tillman's safety counterpart, JerMichael White, also tallied eight total hits with a pass break-up.
Western Carolina plays its next two conference games on the road beginning next Saturday, Sept. 30, under the lights at Chattanooga. Kickoff from Finley Stadium is set for 6:00 pm.