It was far from pretty, but it sure was effective on the turf of Willie E. Jeffries Field on Saturday.
The South Carolina State football team got a defensive touchdown midway through the fourth quarter to pull ahead for good in a 21-17 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference win against Savannah State.
After four straight games of scoring between 21 and 44 points each outing, it took the normally-stout defensive unit of the Bulldogs to secure the points needed to garner a win.
It marked a fourth-consecutive win for the Bulldogs (5-5 overall, 4-2 in MEAC), who are in position to finish out a winning season at next Saturday’s season finale at home against North Carolina Central (1:30 p.m.).
“There’s no such thing as an ugly win, but this was close to it,” Bulldogs head coach Buddy Pough said. “I’m just as happy as I can be to get this win, but it was not one that you would think we would have won, after having seen how it played out.
“But, our defense refused to allow us lose the football game. They not only stopped them, shut them out in the second half. But, the bottom line is we were very, very fortunate.”
Midway through the fourth quarter, with the Tigers winning 17-14, Savannah State sophomore quarterback D’Vonn Gibbons tucked the ball to run on second down after a Bulldogs’ punt. As he ran into traffic up the middle of the field, the ball popped out and into the arms of S.C. State redshirt freshman safety Duane Nichols. The speedy defensive back then returned the turnover 55 yards to the end zone for the late lead. Freshman kicker Dillon Bredesen made the third of his PAT attempts on the day for the 21-17 final.
The game marked the final game in MEAC play for the Tigers (2-8 overall, 1-6 in MEAC), a program that will transition to the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and the NCAA Division II ranks in 2019.
Neither team did much offensively, with S.C. State managing just 155 yards of total offense, compared Savannah State’s 221 yards of total offense.
“It doesn’t surprise me that these guys came in here and basically shut us down (on offense) for a while,” Pough said. “We hadn’t thrown the ball quite as well as I would like, and these guys come in here with a good plan against us, taking away the meat of what we did in the throw game.
“After that, they looked to stop the run from us.”
Sophomore quarterback Tyrece Nick was again the catalyst of the offense the Bulldogs did generate, as his has been often this season. He finished with 70 yards rushing on 19 carries, including two touchdowns, while passing for just 30 yards, but no interceptions. Redshirt senior Jermaine Baxley led S.C. State with 2 receptions for 13 yards.
By comparison, Savannah State had no ball carrier top 50 yards rushing, and Gibbons connected on just 3 of his 8 passes for 59 yards and an interception. And 51 of those yards through the air came on Gibbons’ only pass play to Treveyon Pratt. Gibbons gained 118 yards, but lost 104 of those on tackles for loss by the Bulldogs defense, leaving him with 2 short touchdown runs and a net total of 14 yards rushing.
The visitors opened the scoring with a field goal, which was followed by two touchdown runs apiece by each teams’ starting quarterback, until the final defensive score by the home team for the win.
Redshirt sophomore linebacker Chad Gilchrist led the Bulldogs with 10 tackles, while junior linebacker Cornelius Walker (Orangeburg-Wilkinson) added 8 tackles, senior defensive end Bruce Johnson added 6 tackles and Nichols added 5 tackles.
Stefen Banks and Desmond Young led the Tigers with 6 tackles apiece.
Redshirt sophomore cornerback Decobie Durant intercepted the ball to end Savannah State’s game-opening drive three plays in. But, the home team couldn’t sustain a drive and punted back to the visitors. Then when the home defense forced a punt, returner Tra’Quan Dubose muffed the return and the Tigers recovered 12 yards from paydirt. Four plays later, Giovanni Lugo converted a 26-yard field goal for a 3-0 SSU lead.
Two Bulldogs’ series later, S.C. State needed just two plays to go 55 yards for a score, with Nick calling his own number on the first play of the second quarter, before running the ball 47 yards for a touchdown.
Gibbons put the visitors back on top with two touchdown runs in the final 3:47 of the half, including a 2-yard keeper to finish an 8-play drive and a 9-yard keeper with 45 seconds left before the half.
The Tigers led 17-7 at the half.
Nick got the Bulldogs back in the scoring column with a 13-yard touchdown run with 1:50 left in the third quarter, finishing a 6-play drive that covered 37 yards and was started by senior defensive end Damu Ford forcing a Gibbons’ fumble that senior linebacker Kendric Gathers recovered.
“There was all kinds of concern for all kinds of things on our sideline,” Pough said. “The perfect situation was we had just gotten our offense regrouped and to the side after we had been stopped again in the third quarter. We got that turnover and then we ran a jet sweep and another play that worked and luckily got it in the end zone.
“Our offense then had some life, since we were able to generate some offense again. Then our defense held the day for us and won it for us, before (redshirt senior punter Jerome) Pettiway had his best punt of the year, knocking it out of bounds at the 1-yard line to back them up (for the final failed SSU drive of the game with 2:17 left to play).”