Press release provided by Gardner-Webb
BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. – A.J. Keene picked off a pass in the end zone with 52 seconds left and Gardner-Webb held on for a 35-27 Homecoming win over Hampton Saturday afternoon in both teams’ Big South Conference opener.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs (3-3, 1-0 Big South) had a big day through the air, with graduate transfer Kalen Whitlow posting his best effort of the season – completing 12-of-22 passes for 352 yards and three touchdowns in the win. Whitlow had scoring passes of a 45, 70 and three yards on Saturday.
Gardner-Webb’s defense held Hampton (3-3, 0-1) to just 17 yards rushing after halftime, and did not allow a touchdown in the second half.
Jordan Smith came off the bench to toss a 38-yard touchdown to Izaiah Gathings with 9:40 left in the game to push Gardner-Webb’s lead to 35-27. Hampton (3-3, 0-1 Big South) got the ball back, but Francois was sacked by Trey Dunson on a key third down play to force a punt.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs stalled after five plays, giving the Pirates a chance at a potentially game-tying drive with 5:58 left to play. Deondre Francois, who previously started under center at Florida State, had three first-down completions and a first-down run on the drive, getting his offense all the way down to the Gardner-Webb 18-yard line. After an offensive pass interference call, Francois’ throw into the end zone was intercepted by Keene.
Gardner-Webb ran two plays from the victory formation to end the game.
“This was a big one for us against a really talented team,” said head coach Carroll McCray. “I thought our coaching staff did a good job with in-game adjustments on both sides of the ball. With their big, strong front hemming up the run game we were able to stretch the field and complete some balls. I thought we had a lot of guys step up and make plays. Defensively, our speed package was able to start getting some pressure there in the second half and we held up when we had to. Always great to win on Homecoming in front another big crowd.”
The Runnin’ Bulldogs jumped out early behind some crafty play calling and accurate passing from Whitlow. With Hampton’s defense bottling up the run game, Whitlow hit Jayln Cagle on a 45-yard wheel route for six points and the early lead with 8:53 to play in the first quarter. The Pirates responded with a heavy run game on the ensuing drive, but stalled inside the red zone. Evan Lomax booted home a 27-yard field goal to trim the lead to 7-3.
Gardner-Webb went to work again with less than four minutes to play in the opening quarter, with Whitlow connecting on a 34-yard completion to Gathings near midfield to get the drive going. Penalties for roughing the passer and a facemask on back-to-back downs moved Gardner-Webb all the way to the Hampton 13-yard line, and Cagle sprinted into the end zone on first down for a 14-3 lead with 1:16 left before the end of the quarter.
Hampton wasted little time opening the second quarter with action, as Virginia Tech grad transfer Shai McKenzie sprinted 46 yards to paydirt just nine seconds into the stanza. The extra point cut the lead to 14-10. The Pirates took advantage of a special teams’ miscue to go ahead, as a fumbled kickoff return by a Gardner-Webb up back gave Hampton golden field position. McKenzie capped a 30-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown run on fourth down for a 17-14 edge just four three minutes later.
Gardner-Webb used its speed to swing momentum.
Whitlow hit freshman Devron Harper over the middle, and the Conyers, Ga., standout bolted 70 yards for a touchdown that put Gardner-Webb up 21-17. The two-play drive lasted just 39 seconds.
Francois took his turn at the wheel, completing passes of 20 and 39 yards on a touchdown drive moments later. His 39-yard scoring toss to KeyRon Catlett over the middle gave Hampton a 24-21 lead with 9:03 to play before the break.
The score would not budge the rest of the half. Hampton found itself backed up at its own one-yard line after a fine Jack Pawloski punt, but a bruising, 17-play drive would be stopped short of the end zone. The Pirates marched 97 yards, mostly behind the running of McKenzie and Will Robinson, but Francois was stopped at the Gardner-Webb two-yard line on a third-down run by Cade Hamilton as time expired.
Gardner-Webb’s defense, which played without All-America linebacker Darien Reynolds for the first half following last week’s targeting foul, came around over the final 30 minutes – keeping Hampton out of the end zone.
The Pirates drove inside the Gardner-Webb 10-yard line on their second drive of the half, but Reynolds sprinted through to rush a fourth-down throw by Francois that sailed high in the end zone.
What happened next changed the tide of the game and will be a topic of conversation for many years in Boiling Springs. After a run for no gain on first down, Whitlow found Harper once again near his own 30-yard line. Harper switched into high gear quickly and, after a mystifying stutter step just past midfield, was able to out-run the Pirates all the way down to the three-yard line.
The 90-yard pitch-and-catch broke the school-record for longest pass play. The previous record of 89 yards came on October 15, 1998 when Bruce Benson connected with Kelvin Richardson against Catawba.
Whitlow made another fine throw to get into the end zone, connecting with Gathings on a three-yard fade to give Gardner-Webb the lead for good with 1:41 to play in the third quarter.
Gardner-Webb’s defense held again inside its red zone on Hampton’s next drive, with Lomax pulling the visitors to within one point after a 37-yard field goal with 12:37 left in the game. The Runnin’ Bulldogs took over and after Whitlow was shaken up on a third-down run – Cagle converted a short run on fourth down to keep the drive alive.
Smith came on for Whitlow and dropped in a perfect pass on first down to Gathings for what proved to be the final margin. Kurt Everett’s PAT put GWU up 35-27 with 9:40 to play and the Runnin’ Bulldogs would make enough plays the rest of the way to preserve the win.
Whitlow powered a strong air attack, as Gardner-Webb finished with 445 total yards offensively. The Runnin’ Bulldogs were efficient, averaging 8.4 yards per play, despite being held to only 55 yards on the ground.
Harper finished with four catches for a career-high 187 yards and a touchdown, adding a 25-yard kickoff return and a six-yard loss on the ground to finish with 206 all-purpose yards. Gathings caught four passes for a career-high 93 yards and two scores and Chuma Awanna had two catches for 51 yards. A.J. Alexander also had a pair of catches.
Cagle finished with 44 yards on the ground to lead that effort and added his 45-yard catch for a score.
Defensively, Hamilton starred with Reynolds sidelined for a half. The Forest City, N.C., sophomore – who missed games against NC Central and Wofford after an injury – collected 19 total tackles (nine solo). He had 13 total hits before the break. Devin Mines (seven tackles, PBU), Cam McCutcheon (six tackles) and Reynolds (six tackles, two PBU) also had solid games. Janathian Turner and Dunson each had big sacks in the game, while Keene had four tackles, three pass break ups and his game-saving interception.
Hampton had 573 yards offensively, including 216 on the ground, but was only 1-for-6 in the red zone converting touchdowns. The Pirates were also hampered by 14 penalties, with most of those on the defensive side of the ball.
Grad transfer quarterback Francois was solid, completing 29-of-51 passes for 357 yards and a touchdown (one interception). He was sacked twice and finished with four yards on the ground. McKenzie led that charge, rumbling 20 times for 147 yards and two scores – although he was limited to just 10 yards after halftime.
KeyRon Catlett, a transfer from Purdue, caught seven passes for 110 yards and a score to lead the receiving corps – which saw 10 different players catch at least one pass. Oral Varcciann led the defense with nine stops (six solo).
Gardner-Webb will get back to action next Saturday, flying to West Long Branch, N.J., to face Monmouth.