(Photo: UNCP Athletics) UNCP quarterback Dominick Samson tries to evade pressure against Wingate on Saturday night.
The UNCP football team led Wingate by four points in the fourth quarter, but a late score helped the Bulldogs top the Braves 31-28 on Saturday night inside a foggy Irwin Belk Stadium.
Despite falling behind 14-0 in the second quarter, the Braves (1-5) rallied to even the score and traded blows with the undefeated Bulldogs (5-0) until the game’s final minutes.
“I saw a lot of effort, a lot of heart, a lot of growth and a team that was hungry to go out there and show the identity of who we want to be,” UNCP head coach Shane Richardson said. “We talk about team identity on the field, meaning we want to be a team that plays harder than the opponent, a team that’s grittier and tougher and has competitive spirit out there that’s unwavering.”
UNCP’s defense held strong on the first drive of the game, holding Wingate running back Lawrence Pittman to a two-yard run on third-and-2. Facing fourth down the UNCP 39-yard line, the Bulldogs chose to hand the ball to Pittman again. The Braves stopped him at the line of scrimmage to force a turnover.
UNCP’s offense took the field looking slightly different than they did in the first five games. Austin Foley started at quarterback for the Braves, becoming the only quarterback other than Dominick Samson to fill that role this season.
That drive ended with a special teams disaster. With Isaac Parks in to kick for the Braves, the ensuing snap sailed over the punter’s head. The miscue allowed Wingate to get the ball at UNCP’s 14-yard line.
The Bulldogs capitalized on the mistake, as quarterback James Whitaker found Jay Hood for an 8-yard touchdown pass on third down.
UNCP’s punting woes continued on the next possession, this time due to Wingate’s defense. Parks’ kick from UNCP’s 26-yard line was blocked by Jalen McNish and recovered by DJ Crosby two yards farther into the visitors’ territory.
With Samson back under center after the first drive, UNCP struggled to make an impact early in the game. The team did not convert on three third down conversion attempts in the first quarter.
After the Braves started the second quarter by turning the ball over on downs, a quick 2-yard run from Pittman increased Wingate’s lead to 14-0.
Suddenly, Samson found his groove.
The redshirt freshman drove the Braves 65 yards down the field on a drive that ended a 50-yard touchdown pass to redshirt senior JoJo Spann, who finished with 144 yards and two touchdowns on eight receptions.
Wingate had a punting mishap of their own on the next possession. An errant snap helped UNCP take over at the Wingate 19-yard line.
Samson took advantage of the good field position and found redshirt senior E.J. Williams in the endzone for a 12-yard score.
The Bulldogs responded with a 39-yard field goal by Freddy McCollum that gave the hosts a 17-14 lead at halftime.
Samson connected with Williams again in the third quarter for a 25-yard touchdown pass. Albert Wright forced a fumble on the preceding Wingate possession to give the Braves the ball in Bulldog territory.
With less than two minutes remaining in the third, Wingate quarterback James Whitaker threw to Jake Jensen for a 26-yard touchdown that helped the hosts reclaim the lead heading into the fourth.
After a couple of fruitless drives by both teams, a 50-yard punt by Wingate’s Christopher Birozes pinned the Braves at their own 5-yard line.
A series of short runs by redshirt junior Brian Staton and a 17-yard rush by Samson helped UNCP’s offense get its back off the wall. After hitting Spann and Williams for completions of 14 and 8 yards, respectively, Samson went deep to Spann again for a 42-yard touchdown.
Down by four with under five minutes left on the clock, Whitaker led the Bulldogs on a 65-yard drive that culminated with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Hood near the edge of the endzone.
Faced with their last chance to either tie the game or take the lead, the Braves took over at their own 15-yard line with 1:34 left in the game.
A chop block penalty and a sack pushed UNCP back to the 6-yard line. On third-and-19, Williams picked up a 17-yard reception. Wingate was penalized for roughing the passer on the play, spotting the ball at the UNCP 38-yard line.
Samson then made his last completion of the night, a 22-yard pass to redshirt sophomore Quay Threatt. He proceeded to come up short on four consecutive attempts with the clock running down. The last one, a deep shot to Spann in the endzone, fell incomplete.
“I should have honestly caught [the pass],” Spann said. “I thought that it was going to be a little bit under, but it was my fault.”
Wingate outpaced UNCP in rushing yards 157-45, but UNCP held a 272-184 advantage through the air. All of the passing yards for the Braves came from Samson, who finished 19 for 30 with four touchdowns and an interception.
Staton led UNCP’s running back corps with 27 yards on four carries. Redshirt sophomore Josh Sheridan tallied 23 yards on four attempts as well.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen good effort through the whole game,” Staton said. “Through all four quarters we just played hard.”
In addition to Spann’s big game, Williams totaled 82 yards and a pair of touchdowns on six catches for the Braves.
Defensively, redshirt junior Christopher Ploch posted a team-high nine tackles for UNCP. Senior Khalil Vance, redshirt junior Tyler Hinton and redshirt freshman Jordan Howard each picked up a sack.
“It’s a tough loss, but we fought hard and I always knew we had it in this young team,” Vance said.
Whitaker went 15 for 24 with three touchdowns and 184 yards. Pittman ran for 165 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries for Wingate.
Jensen tallied 77 yards and a touchdown on three receptions, while Hood found the endzone twice with 22 yards on two receptions.
UNCP will have some time to make adjustments as they head into their bye week. They will be back on the road on Oct. 21 to take on Concord.
Brandon Tester directs sports coverage at the Pine Needle. You can follow him on Twitter @Tester_Brandon