Western Carolina defenders forced three turnovers inside their own 10-yard line and Donnie Bryant rushed for over 100 yards and two touchdowns as the Catamounts defeated Mars Hill College 15-6 Thursday night.
Despite the score, Western dominated most of the game, outgaining the Lions 328-161 in total yardage, including a 261-41 advantage on the ground.
Both teams failed to score in the first quarter, but the Cats struck first in the second when senior defensive tackle Jeff Chambers sacked MHC quarterback Carlos Gatlin in the end zone for a safety and a 2-0 WCU lead with 9:37 left in the half.
On their ensuing drive, Western put together a six-play, 61-yard drive spanning just over two minutes capped by Bryant’s first score, a 13-yard scamper. After the extra point attempt of red shirt freshman Shon Rowser missed wide left, the Cats took an 8-0 lead.
Western fought off a Mars Hill drive in the closing minutes of the half when sophomore cornerback B.J. Jessup intercepted a Gatlin pass on the one-yard line. Though nearly tripling the total offense of the Lions in the first half at 204-78, WCU would retire to the locker room with a slim 8-0 lead.
After forcing the Lions to punt on the opening drive of the second half, Western took over at their own 23 to begin what would be their most impressive drive of the contest, gaining 77 yards on 12 plays. Bryant would carry most of the load, with seven carries for 40 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown run to put the Cats up 15-0.
MHC would answer on their next possession, however, when Gatlin connected with tight end David Cassell on a fourth down play from the two-yard line to draw the Lions within nine at 15-6.
The next two Mountain Lion drives were quelled with interceptions by junior free safety Justin Fryer and senior cornerback Marquail Wells, both inside the Western five-yard line. Both defensive plays ensured the final score of 15-6.
Bryant led all rushers with 116 yards rushing on 22 carries, followed by sophomore Fred Boateng, who gained 67 yards in 18 attempts. Sophomore quarterback Brian Gaither passed for 65 yards on 7-17 passing, with a lone interception.
Last season’s Southern Conference Freshman of the Year Lamont Seward led the Cats’ receiving corps with four receptions for 51 yards. Junior Michael Banks followed with 39 yards on three catches.
Head coach Bill Bleil, in his weekly question on catamountsports.com, commented that he will try to maintain a mix of air and ground game on offense. However, he states, the team has already proved it’s running game to be strong.
“We have always attempted to have a balanced attack, and that is something we will once again strive for this season,” he said. “A team will always utilize the talent it has and that includes our outstanding running backs.”
The passing game, on the other hand, will travel as far as the young arm of Gaither can carry it.
“We feel Brian Gaither made strides in the second half of the Mars Hill game after he settled down. We look for him to only get better as he gets more on-field experience.”
The Catamount defense held the Lions to just one of 13 on third down conversions. and only 12 total first downs, while forcing four turnovers. In addition to his interception, Fryer also recovered a fumble on MHC’s opening drive.
Mars Hill was also limited to 41 yards on 29 carries rushing, an average of 1.4 yards per carry. Western defenders held Gatlin to 12 completions on 29 attempts, being equally stingy through the air.
The win was the 11th all-time for WCU over the Lions in 17 meetings, the most recent being a 59-0 slaughter in 1999. Next, Western will travel to Louisville, KY, to face the Division 1-A powerhouse Cardinals of Louisville. Kickoff is set for Saturday night at 7 p.m.