Cullowhee, N.C. – Redshirt sophomore quarterback Will Jones accounted for two touchdowns including a six-yard run and what proved to be a game-winning six-yard TD pass to redshirt freshman tight end Clayton Bardall inside the game's final six minutes as Western Carolina fended off upset-minded North Greenville, 20-17, on Saturday evening at E.J. Whitmire Stadium / Bob Waters Field.
In just his second career start, Jones completed a career-high 27 of his 37 pass attempts for 207 yards and the score. Despite being sacked a combined four times, the Greensboro, N.C., native added 43 rushing yards and a TD. Utilizing a short passing game, redshirt junior WR Daquan Patten hauled in a career-best 12 catches for 82 yards, finishing the game with 219 all-purpose yards including 80 on kickoff returns and two big punt returns for a total of 57 yards.
Hampered by weather delays that pushed kickoff back two and a half hours on Saturday, WCU's offense got off to a solid start, but was only able to manage a pair of Richard McCollum first half field goals over the opening two quarters of play. McCollum split the uprights from 25 and 33 yards out, respectively, the second careening through off the cross bar following a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown by North Greenville's Harold Hilton as the Catamounts trailed at the break, 7-6.
After the break, the Crusaders (1-1) pushed their lead to four, 10-6, by opening the second half with a field goal by Matt Gravely before Jones marched the home squad 81 yards in 12 plays, calling his own number to cap the drive by barreling in for the six-yard TD rush.
Late in the third quarter, North Greenville used another 72-yard big play on a slant route from QB London Johnson – one of just three completions for the redshirt senior QB on 17 attempts – to Kyle Belack to reclaim the lead for the visitors, 17-13. Johnson was limited to just 78 passing yards, the bulk coming on the 72-yard scoring strike.
Jones capped the game's scoring at the 5:04 mark of the fourth quarter after a 27-yard Daquan Patten punt return set the Catamounts up with plus yardage – but the drive wasn't without its drama. Facing a fourth down and eight-yards to go at the 14-yard line, Jones flung the ball to the left side to tailback Connell Young who plowed his way for the eight yards, just inching the nose of the football beyond the yard to gain to keep the drive alive. On the ensuing play from the six, Jones delivered a bullet to Bardall in the back of the end zone for the first career reception and score for the redshirt freshman tight end with the game-winning points.
Over the final two North Greenville possessions, the inspired Catamount defense forced four incomplete passes and sacked Johnson twice to help seal the victory, halting a 10-game slide that dated back to last season for WCU.
Western Carolina's offense finished with 345 total yards while the defense limited North Greenville to a season-low 204 yards of total offense, the fewest by a Catamount defense since holing VMI to 196 back in the 2017 season.
Junior LB Trevor Childers tallied his second double-digit tackle performance of the season, credited with 11 total hits including seven solo stops including half a tackle for loss. Safety JerMichael White finished with eight tackles while defensive end Jarquavius Wortham recorded six stops, two coming as sacks including one on North Greenville's final possession. Defensive lineman K.J. Milner was credited with two tackles including a sack, while Jayden Pauling and Adam Henderson combined to drop the Crusader QB in the backfield. Defensive backs Ronald Kent Jr., and Michael Murphy combined for three pass break-ups – two by Kent.
Western Carolina (1-2) enters its bye week, returning to action in Southern Conference play on Saturday, Sept. 28 when it visits Chattanooga at Finley Stadium. Kickoff is set for 4:00 pm.