Nashville, Tenn. – The Tennessee State football team fell to Bethune-Cookman in a defensive battle on Sunday night, 12-9, in the 15th annual John Merritt Classic.
TSU (0-1) held B-CU (1-0) to just 260 yards, the lowest since Oct. 27, 2012 against Tennessee Tech, but only mustered 248 on offense.
“We were able to get downfield, but just didn’t execute in the red zone,” head coach Rod Reed said. “Ultimately, we didn’t score enough and that is what got us beat.”
TSU got into the red zone on three occasions but had to settle for field goals.
Junior linebacker Nick Thrasher led Big Blue with 10 tackles, six solo.
The TSU offense got off to a very slow start to begin the game, only mustering one first down and 15 total yards during the squad’s first two possessions.
Meanwhile, the B-CU offense put together a pair of scoring drives that featured a good mixture of run and pass (42 yards rushing and 45 passing). The Wildcats had no problem moving down the field, but their spread-attack sputtered near the red zone, forcing the team to settle for a pair of field goals from Jonathan Cagle.
Tight end A.C. Leonard finally got the Tiger offense started with a 31-yard run on a reverse. The junior All-American set up TSU for a first down on the B-CU side of the field for the first time all game, but it did not lead to points. The first quarter ended with the Tigers trailing, 6-0.
The TSU defense forced its first three-and-out on B-CU’s opening possession of the second quarter, setting up a punt from the Wildcat 33. The long snap hit the punter Cagle in the facemask, sending the ball careening backwards. Cagle picked up the ball and tried to punt it away, but Harold Watson blocked the kick and the ball ended up out of bounds at the seven-yard line.
Big Blue was unable to find the end zone after the botched kick, but finally got on the board at the 11:28 mark in the second quarter when Jamin Godfrey connected on a 21-yard field goal.
After the TSU defense forced another stop, Big Blue marched down the field on a 15-play, 63-yard drive that featured a crazy play that went in TSU’s favor. Quarterback Ronald Butler found running back Telvin Hooks on a screen pass and Hooks eventually fumbled the ball fighting for extra yards. The ball rolled approximately 20 feet downfield, squirted around B-CU defenders and was recovered by TSU lineman James Lewis.
Hooks finished the game with 52 yards on 13 carries for a 3.6 yards per carry average.
The stroke of luck set up a 44-yard Godfrey field goal that tied the game at six with 1:48 to go in the half. The score was the last of the first half.
The Wildcats received the ball to begin the third period and drove all the way down to the TSU 22-yard line. After a fumbled hand off on first down, B-CU’s Jackie Wilson tried a deep pass on second and long, but senior safety David Van Dyke read the play perfectly for his second career interception.
TSU took advantage of its opportunity and went 86 yards down the field, eating up 10:22 of the game clock. A 26-yard grab by Leonard and an 11-yard reception by Devin Wilson highlighted the 18-play drive. Still, the offense was unable to score a touchdown and settled for Godfrey’s third field goal of the night, this one from 26 yards out. The boot brought the score to 9-6 in favor of the Tigers.
Leonard led the Tigers with five grabs for 38 yards while Wilson’s 36 yards ranked him second on the team.
After the sides traded punts, B-CU was finally able to find the end zone on the 12th play of a 71-yard drive. Wilson found Jordan Murphy with a six-yard completion for the score. The duo connected three times on the day, all on the touchdown drive.
TSU had two more chances to score in the game’s final 5:01, but the comeback bid fell short when TSU committed three costly penalties on its final drive, leaving Godfrey a 49-yard field goal attempt. The senior’s kick missed wide right as the final horn sounded, giving the Wildcats a three-point victory.
Butler, who made his first career start at quarterback, was 13-of-21 for 132 yards. The freshman did not throw an interception, but also did not have a touchdown.
The last time that TSU did not manage to find the end zone was Nov. 13, 2010 against UT Martin when the Tigers fell 37-0.
TSU will try to recover from the loss on the road when the club travels to Tallahassee, Fla. for a tilt against the Rattlers of Florida A&M on Sept. 7.