Pioneers outgun Eagles for 37-36 SAC triumph

STAR Staff

   GREENEVILLE -- With the spot for second place in the Southern Athletic Conference up for grabs, the atmosphere Saturday at a packed out Pioneer Field made it feel like the 25th-ranked Carson-Newman Eagles and the 22nd-ranked Pioneers of Tusculum College were playing for the national championship.
   Both teams came into the game with conference records of 2-1 and the loser of the game would most likely have far fetched playoff hopes.
   It's been over 50 years since the Eagles (3-3, 2-2 SAC) traveled to take on Tusculum (6-1, 3-1) in Greeneville, and the last time they met Carson-Newman was back in 1950 when the Eagles won by the score of 19-0.
   Tusculum would put the half century curse to a stop though as they used the passing game to defeat the Eagles by the final of 37-36 in front of the largest crowd ever at Tusculum College and staying in the hunt for the Southern Athletic Conference title.
   "Our kids just played exceptionally well," Tusculum coach Frank DeBusk said. "We had some things not go positively for us early but we kept fighting and fortunate enough to come away victorious."
   After starting off the game with nothing happening on offense the Eagles punted the ball down to the five yard line where punt returner Donald Amaker let it slip through his hands and allowing Carson-Newman to take over with great field position.
   Junior running back Randy Bell then plowed through the Pioneer defensive line for a one yard touchdown run as the point after attempt was good giving the Eagles a 7-0 lead at the 10:37 mark in the first quarter.
   The Pioneers came back and knotted things up at 7-7 when junior Aaron Claridy broke through the Eagle defense for a 55 yard touchdown run.
   With another touchdown run by Eagle Quarterback Shane Kelley to put Carson-Newman up 14-7, the Pioneers added a field goal off of the foot of kicker Paul Czerniak, who missed an 18 yard attempt earlier, to cut the lead down 14-10 going into the half.
   Both teams would regroup and come on in the third quarter knowing that this was the game they had to win.
   Quarterback Caleb Slover, who had already completed 20 of 34 passes in the first half for 178 yards, showed no signs of letting up as he threw a strike to wide receiver Reggie Jones who lost control of the ball at the goal line as teammate Bobby Thompson recovered the fumble in the air to give Tusculum a 16-14 lead as Czerniak's point after attempt was no good.
   The Eagles took the lead back with 1:09 remaining in the third quarter as Bell collected his second touchdown run of the game to give his team a 22-16 advantage.
   As the fourth quarter got underway you could see the 4,011 in attendance on the edge of their seats and watching as the two nationally ranked squads were ready to show what they were made of.
   Tusculum wasted no time as they took a 23-22 lead over Carson-Newman due to another touchdown run by Claridy with this one being from five yards out.
   "I've said it all along and I still stand by my word that Aaron Claridy is one of the best running back in the conference," DeBusk said. "Everytime we give him the ball he makes great things happen."
   The game quickly went back and forth as the Eagle's Antwon Oliver ran it in from one yard out. The extra point attempt was then bobbled by Kelley, but he recovered and ran it in for the two point conversion and giving Carson-Newman a 30-23 lead with 10:44 left to play in the game.
   Just when the Eagles thought all they had to do was stop Tusculum on defense, things broke down in Carson-Newman's kickoff coverage which led to the 95 yard kick return (new Tusculum school record) by Amaker, who made up for the fumbled punt return earlier in the game and tying things up at 30-30.
   "We've been very successful in our special teams game all year," DeBusk said. "We've really emphasized it in the off-season and that play just happened to be huge at the time."
   With 4:49 left to play, Carson-Newman looked as if they were going to punch one in and take the lead. However on fourth and two, Kelley snapped the ball and just as he was going to keep it and get the first down, he stumbled over his running back's foot and fell just short of the marker and turning the ball over to Tusculum.
   The Pioneers capitalized on the turnover on downs as they traveled down the field and eventually scoring on Claridy's third touchdown of the game to give his team a 37-30 lead.
   "I knew what had to be done and I knew they (Tusculum) were going to rely on me so I had to get the job done for the team," Claridy said.
   Many team however know not to count the Eagles out even with just :35 ticks left on the clock. Carson-Newman did the impossible going 80 yards in 21 seconds with the drive ending in an 18 yard pass from Kelley to freshman Alvin Sanders and cutting the lead to 37-36.
   Now came decision time for coach Sparks and his Eagles as the had to choose to either kick the extra point and send it to overtime or go for two and leave with a win.
   The decision was made as Carson-Newman's offense came onto the field and going for the victory.
   Tusculum had other intentions though as they held Carson-Newman out of the end zone and beating the Eagles for the first time since 1934 with a 37-36 win.
   "We debated a little bit," said Carson-Newman coach Ken Sparks of his decision. "We were running out of players because they were all getting hurt, and I thought shortening the game might have been the best way to do it."
   For Tusculum Slover was the hero as he completed 33 of 50 passes and throwing for 331 yards. At one point Slover completed 11 consecutive passes while throwing no interceptions and getting sacked just one time.
   "It's great," Slover said of the win. "This is what everyone plays the game for. We played a good game against Catawba last week and came up short and we didn't want to quit like that. We knew if we came in here today and kept it close we were going to pull it out. It's why you play and it's a great feeling."
   Wide receivers Thompson (eight catches, 93 yds., TD), Kevin Wolcott (seven catches, 84 yds.) and Jason Nance (five catches, 68 yds.) led the Pioneers while Claridy hauled in six receptions for 24 yards. Defensively D.J. Sterling totaled seven tackles while Walter Johnson collected five of his own including a sack.
   "Our offense did a great job scoring a bunch of points for us," said DeBusk. "Our defense pushed them back when they had to and our special teams stepped up huge."
   Claridy also did it on the ground as he finished the day with 138 yards rushing on 14 carries.
   "We played pretty good but we could have played better," said Claridy. "The main thing was that we didn't break under pressure. We knew it was going to be a close game coming in so we knew we had to come ready to play."
   Kelley threw 13 passes for the Eagles while completing seven of them along with a touchdown pass as his teammate Oliver led the rushing category with 157 yards on 25 carries.
   "Our kids refused to quit," said Sparks. "They did a great job, it was a great football game to watch."