Cullowhee, N.C. - Redshirt freshman tailback Donnavan Spencer scored four rushing touchdowns while the defense and special teams units tallied scores of their own as No. 25/21 Western Carolina stormed past upset-minded East Tennessee State in the second half, winning 49-10, in Southern Conference action on Saturday afternoon at E.J. Whitmire Stadium / Bob Waters Field.
Western Carolina (5-2, 3-1 SoCon) created three takeaways including two John Brannon III interceptions - one returned for a touchdown with the second return setting-up WCU with a first-and-goal situation - with the third turnover coming on a muffed kickoff fumble recovery. WCU also blocked an ETSU punt with Tyran Reynolds scooping-and-scoring from 35 yards out as a part of a 42-point second half.
In the absence of two-time All-American tailback Detrez Newsome, his understudy, Spencer, rushed a career-high 21 times for a career-best 139 yards and four rushing scores to key a strong final two quarters for the Catamounts who won while holding a national ranking for the first time since 1994, halting a seven-game slide. Spencer posted scoring runs of 1, 41, 6 and 19 yards, duplicating the four-score performance of Newsome against the Bucs the previous season inside the Bristol Motor Speedway.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Tyrie Adams jumpstarted the Catamount offense in the second half, rushing for a total of 90 yards on 14 carries. And though he struggled with the deep pass, the St. Petersburg, Fla., connected on 14-of-27 passes for a season-low 83 yards, but did manage to light the scoreboard on a three-yard pass to tight end Owen Cosenke early in the third quarter.
Adams spread the ball around to five different receivers with senior Steffon Hill leading the way with six grabs for 33 yards. Redshirt senior WR Terryon Robinson eclipsed the 200-catch mark in his career, finishing the day with four catches for 35 yards giving him 203 career receptions.
Billed as a potential aerial showcase with two of the top three passing offenses guided by two of the top three passing quarterbacks, Saturday's proceedings were more about the ground game. WCU rushed for 244 yards - its third-highest total this season - while ETSU eclipsed the century mark with 137 yards on the ground, just the second time this year that the Bucs surpassed the 100-yard mark.
While the offense was struggling to find its rhythm early, the Catamount defense again stepped up in keeping the team close. WCU limited the Buccaneers to a 45-yard JJ Jerman field goal in the first quarter and trailed, 3-0, after one. Spencer started his rushing outburst with a one-yard plunge midway through the second frame to provide the four-point, 7-3, halftime score.
After holding serve and forcing an ETSU punt out of the locker room, WCU capitalized on its first possession of the second half with Adams finding Cosenke to cap an 8-play, 67-yard drive to push the margin to 14-3. Spencer did the bulk of the work with a 41-yard run exploded up the middle on a 75-yard scoring drive to stretch the margin to 21-3.
Brannon jumped an out-route, returning the interception 41 yards to make it 28-3 before the Buccaneers were able to light the scoreboard as quarterback Austin Herink found fullback Haddon Hill on a 10-yard score.
Herink finished 11-for-30 for 134 yards and a score, also tossing a pair of interceptions.
Brannon's second pick of the day was returned 56 yards to the six-yard line where Spencer took it in for the score and a 35-10 lead. On the ensuing possession, Jacques Williams blocked a Marion Watson punt with Reynolds collecting the bouncing ball with a 35-yard touchdown return. The kickoff that followed the score was fumbled with Brad Swan falling on the football for the takeaway with Spencer rushing three times - the last from 19 yards out for the game's final score.
Senior linebacker A.J. Newman paced the Catamount defense with nine tackles including half a sack while classmate Tahjai Watt tallied six stops with 1.5 tackles for loss coming on sacks, adding a pair of quarterback hurries. Kendall White likewise posted a pair of hurries with seven tackles including a sack and another tackle for loss.
Defensive back JerMichael White - a native of Johnson City, Tenn. - and Keion Crossen tallied seven stops apiece with White credited with breaking up a pair of passes.
For the Bucs, running back Falon Lee rushed 16 times for 85 yards while Jajuan Stinson carried the ball 13 times for 40 yards. Eight different receivers caught passes with Braxton Richburg leading the way with three catches, finishing with just nine yards. Anthony Spagnoletti had a pair of receptions for a team-best 49 yards.
Western Carolina travels to Lexington, Va., next weekend for another Southern Conference road test against the VMI Keydets (0-7, 0-4 SoCon). Kickoff is scheduled for 1:30 pm at Foster Stadium / Alumni Memorial Field. The game will be broadcast on the Catamount Sports Network with a 12:30 pm air time, with VMI's video production available on ESPN3.