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12th-Ranked Wofford Survives Trip to Cullowhee, 21-17

Senior defensive lineman Andre Whitmire (42) had a career-high six tackles including a sack in Saturday's loss to No. 12 Wofford. (Photo by Mark Haskett)

Oct. 20, 2013

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Cullowhee, N.C. - Upset-minded Western Carolina had two drives inside the game's final six minutes on Saturday afternoon with a chance to knock-off No. 12 Wofford on Hall of Fame day at E.J. Whitmire Stadium / Bob Waters Field. However, for a second-straight week, the Terriers' defense stiffened in the closing seconds as back-up quarterback Eddie Sullivan's final two pass attempts from the five-yard line fell incomplete as Wofford survived WCU's upset bid, 21-17.

Playing its most complete game of the season, WCU led by 10 at halftime, 17-7, but was held scoreless in the second half. Wofford's Octavius Harden rumbled in from 16 yards out to cap a nine-play, 79-yard drive to give the Terriers their first lead of the game - and provide the game-winning points with 11:22 remaining in regulation.

"I'm proud of what these guys are doing, and they gave us a chance to win against a real good football team," said WCU second-year head coach Mark Speir during post-game comments. "It hurts. I told my guys I know it hurts, but it's something where we've got to keep that sick feeling in your stomach and dig a little deeper in practice, work a little harder, and eventually we're going to win those ball games."

Trailing by just four points, Western Carolina had a pair of fourth quarter drives inside the final six minutes with a chance to push across the go-ahead score.

Backed up to their own three-yard line after a Kasey Redfern punt was downed in the shadow of the Catamounts' goal posts, sophomore quarterback Troy Mitchell orchestrated a beautiful drive to move WCU into the red zone. Mitchell was 6-for-6 passing on the drive in moving to the 11-yard line, completing two passes apiece to receivers Karnorris Benson (20 yards) and Willie Police (11 yards) with two big strikes to tight end Michael Helms Jr., for 35 yards.

However, the drive stalled at the 11 with Mitchell flushed from the pocket and corralled by the Terrier defense for no gain on a fourth-and-two play, giving the ball back to Wofford on downs. On the play, Mitchell suffered a head injury which kept the second-year signal caller on the sidelines as the defense earned the ball back.

With a drive starting with 1:21 remaining in regulation and the Catamounts down to just one timeout, Wofford's ball-control offense was held to just five yards on three rushing plays with Redfern called upon to again punt.

Starting from its own 38-yard line, Sullivan, who came on in relief, guided the Catamounts down the field on two big completions. Sullivan hooked up with Benson for a 33-yard pitch-and-catch to move to the Wofford 29. He then threaded the needle between three Terrier defenders on a strike that put WCU at the visitors' five-yard line.

However, with just over five seconds showing on the game clock, Sullivan just missed the outstretched hands of an open Benson over the middle on a second-and-goal play, and Police could not haul in the final pass of the game in the tough home loss.

Sophomore tailback Darius Ramsey recorded his second, 100-yard rushing performance with a season-high 103 yards on 24 carries to lead the Catamounts. Benson led four receivers with eight catches for 116 yards and a touchdown with Police hauling in a career-best seven passes for 60 yards.

Mitchell threw for 206 yards on 18-of-28 passing with a touchdown while Sullivan completed two of his five attempts for 57 yards, coming off the bench late in the fourth quarter.

All told, Western Carolina (1-7, 0-4 SoCon) led the ranked Terriers for three quarters on Saturday afternoon, but missed several key opportunities to put some distance between itself and Wofford. WCU just missed two field goals of 40-plus yards including bouncing one just off the cross bar of the goal posts, and nearly had a second long TD reception from Benson who had the ball just tip off his fingertips. The Catamounts were also tagged with a season-high 11 penalties for 95 yards.

Mitchell opened the game's scoring with his second rushing touchdown of the season, capping a 10-play, 65-yard drive with a one-yard rush late in the first quarter. Wofford responded midway through the second quarter as Will Gay charged in from two-yards out to knot the game at seven apiece.

Late in the frame, WCU used a quick strike as Mitchell found Benson for a 46-yard scoring strike on a two-play drive to put the Catamounts ahead, 14-7.

Then, just before intermission, the Catamounts capitalized on a fortuitous bounce in recovering a fumble on the Terrier sideline, capping it with a 26-yard Richard Sigmon field goal to provide the halftime margin, 17-7.

In the second half, Wofford returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown only to have the play brought back by a penalty. However, on the ensuing play, quarterback Michael Weimer broke free for an 83-yard touchdown rush to pull Wofford back to within three, 17-14. Harden then put the Terriers on top early in the fourth quarter, setting up the heart-stopping finale.

"Every week, these guys have gotten better in some area," 26th-year Wofford coach Mike Ayers said about the Catamounts during post-game comments with the media. "These guys really care about one another. These guys really care about their coaching staff. And these guys really care about turning this program around. That's why they fight so hard."

Western Carolina's defense was led by junior linebacker Christon Gill with 12 tackles, one shy of his career-high established back in 2011. Sophomore defensive end Caleb Hawkins tallied a career-best 10 tackles including a tackle for loss. Hawkins' classmate counterpart, John McBeth, also came up with his first career interception as WCU forced three Terrier turnovers on the day.

For Wofford, Weimer - who did not start the game - led eight backs in rushing with 132 yards including the 83-yard touchdown run, one of three Terrier TDs on the ground. Jonny Martin just missed the century mark with 99 yards on 17 carries with Gay and Harden both scoring. The Terrier defense saw four players with double-digit tackles led by Bernard Williams with 14 and 13 from Kevin Thomas.

Western Carolina returns home next Saturday to host the Elon Phoenix (2-6, 1-3 SoCon) at E.J. Whitmire Stadium for WCU's Homecoming. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 pm.