(Photo: UNCP Athletics) Tusculum's Gabe Shillings collides with JoJo Spann during the open kickoff on Saturday night. Shillings forced a fumble with the hit.
For the first few seconds of the opening kickoff on Saturday night, it appeared that UNCP would avoid a slow start similar to the ones in its two previous home games.
Senior receiver JoJo Spann returned the kick 50 yards, but Tusculum kicker Gabe Shillings stripped him of the ball before he could go any farther. Alex Ogle proceeded to march the visitors down the field and ultimately gave them an early lead with a 33-yard pass to Evan Gates.
It was the first strike from an offensive attack that the Braves struggled to contain, as the Pioneers (2-2) walked out of Grace P. Johnson Stadium with a 31-10 win.
The botched kickoff return marked the beginning of a first half in which the Braves (1-3) struggled to keep their defense off the field. Tusculum had possession for roughly 18 ½ minutes over the first two quarters, in comparison to just 11 ½ minutes for UNCP.
Ogle made the most of that time, tallying 119 yards through the air. It was Tusculum’s ability to run the ball, however, that made a difference on the scoreboard. The remaining two scores for the Pioneers came on short runs by Maxwell Joseph and Ogle respectively.
Running back Josh Sheridan preceded those touchdowns with a 19-yard score, but UNCP wouldn’t put another dent in the deficit until Alex Alvarado connected on a 46-yard field goal with less than a minute remaining in the second quarter.
The Braves couldn’t find enough momentum coming out of the locker room to challenge Tusculum’s 22-10 halftime lead. The Pioneers topped the hosts 100-37 in total yards for the third quarter, although UNCP held a 5-2 advantage in first downs.
The lone scoring play in the third came when Ogle found Gary Breuklander for a 56-yard touchdown just two minutes into the quarter.
Meanwhile, redshirt freshman quarterback Dominick Samson faltered against the Pioneer defense. Samson threw two interceptions in the second half, bringing his turnover count to three after he fumbled on a rush attempt in the second quarter.
The first pick came when the Braves were driving in Tusculum territory in the third quarter. Tusculum’s Dee Alford picked Samson off at the Pioneer 21-yard line and returned it 36 yards.
Martez Thompkins was credited with the second interception, snagging a pass in the red zone as the Braves tried to rally with just under seven minutes left in the game.
A 27-yard field goal from Tusculum’s Jose Esparza just over a minute into the final quarter put UNCP away for good.
“We’re just not a good team right now, that’s just the bare bones about it,” head coach Shane Richardson said. “We’re extremely young, we’re banged up, and there’s a lot of maturity and growth that needs to take place.”
Samson finished 17 for 30 with 191 yards to go along with the two interceptions. He also posted a team-high 41 rushing yards for the Braves. E.J. Williams was Samson’s most reliable target, picking up 95 yards on 10 receptions.
Also getting time under center for the Braves was Connor Stough, who couldn’t connect on his only pass attempt and rushed for three yards.
“We have three quarterbacks right now that are redshirt freshmen,” Richardson said. “Connor had a great week of practice. Dom really did not. You look at it and Dom only has three games of experience over Connor. It’s not like he has three years.”
Sheridan racked up 25 yards on 6 rushes for UNCP. Miles Grant added 28 yards on eight carries.
“We were a little frustrated to begin with, but we always keep each other motivated,” Sheridan said in reference to UNCP’s running back corps.
Ogle went 14 for 25 with 198 yards and two touchdowns for the Pioneers. Joseph tallied 69 yards rushing to go along with a touchdown of his own.
Tusculum was successful on three of their four fourth down conversion attempts. The Braves fell short on two tries.
UNCP will hit the road to take on Newberry next weekend. Kickoff is slated for 4 p.m. on Sept. 30.
Brandon Tester directs sports coverage for the Pine Needle. You can follow him on Twitter @Tester_Brandon