In a game filled with big plays, it was visiting Birmingham-Southern that made the most of its opportunities to take a 49-34 victory over Stetson in front of a sell-out crowd of 6,104 fans at Spec Martin Memorial Stadium.
Combined, the two teams piled up almost 900 yards of offense. There were also three defensive scores and a host of other momentum turning plays in the game.
With the loss, Stetson falls to 1-2 on the year while Birmingham-Southern ran its record to a perfect 3-0.
“It stinks to lose,” Stetson coach Roger Hughes said. “You can’t win a ball game when you turn the ball over eight or nine times. You can’t win a ball game when you don’t win the explosive play ratios. We couldn’t stop their run game consistently and offensively, we weren’t as consistent as we needed to be. There were a lot of reasons for that – penalties, dropped balls. We have to continue to get better.”
Big plays, both for and against the Hatters, were the story of the night. Overall, there were more than 10 plays in the game that went for more than 20 yards, and most of those were made by the Panthers, who finished with 487 yards of total offense, including 266 yards rushing.
“There were several turning points,” Hughes said. “The interception that we returned for a touchdown late in the second quarter. Donald Payne had a huge play to get us back in the game. It seemed like every time someone made a big play, the other team came back and countered.”
The biggest play turned out to be a blocked field goal by the Panthers’ A.J. Ford on the first play of the fourth quarter. The block prevented the Hatters from taking a 37-35 lead at the time and, with a 33-yard return by LaPrintence Gunn. BSC converted that change of momentum into a touchdown 10 plays later.
The Panthers added an insurance score with 5:44 left when QB Tyson Beacham hit Sam Vermilyea with a 49-yard TD pass.
Beacham connected on 18 of 32 passes for 206 yards and two touchdowns. He was also intercepted twice.
Even with those picks, and a pair of lost fumbles, the Panthers won the turnover battle. Stetson quarterback Ryan Tentler was picked off five times in the game to go with the blocked field goal and one lost fumble.
“It is always disappointing when you feel like you are beating yourself,” Hughes said. “We had a lot of dropped balls, and you can’t do that. We had a snap over the quarterback’s head, we had holding penalties. It seemed as if every time we had something go right for us in the second half, something stopped us.”
The first half was non-stop action with both teams moving the ball up and down the field at lighting speed.
Stetson got the scoring started with Taylor Dunn hauled in a one-yard pass from Tentler to cap an opening eight-play drive that covered 86 yards.
After an exchange of punts, Birmingham-Southern got on the board when freshman tailback Joe Moultrie broke through the Stetson defense for a 29-yard TD run. The Panthers then came right back after the Hatters failed to answer, and put together another quick scoring drive. Beacham hit Tyler Johnson for a 28-yard scoring pass.
The Hatters got their offense going again early in the second quarter when Darius Chapes plowed into the end zone on a two-yard TD run to cap an eight-play, 75-yard drive.
After BSC missed a field goal on the Panthers’ next possession, the fireworks started. Stetson’s Mike Yonker got blistered by Gunn after a short pass from Tentler and lost the ball. BSC’s Sidarius Gotell scooped up the loose ball and sprinted 27 yards for a touchdown.
The Hatters didn’t miss a beat, taking the next drive 65 yards in 11 plays, capped by a 12-yard Tentler to Darius McGriff touchdown pass.
The Panthers needed just 46 seconds to answer when Isaac Nichols, who came in for an injured Moultrie, split the Stetson defense for a 61-yard touchdown run. Nichols finished with 201 rushing yards on 21 carries and scored two touchdowns.
After Tentler was intercepted for a second time, it looked as if the Panthers might go up by two scores, but Chris Atkins put an end to that when he intercepted a Beacham pass and returned the pick 48 yards for a tying touchdown.
In the third quarter the Panthers caught a couple of breaks early. The first came when punter Hagen Mancuso mishandled a low snap. After getting manhandled and slung around by the oncoming Stetson rush, Mancuso stayed on his feet and flipped the ball to running back Marquis Pratt, who turned a potential disaster into a 15-yard gain and a first down.
Even though Stetson’s defense eventually forced another punt on the drive, the Hatters wound up deep in their own territory and, when Tentler tried to throw over the middle on first down, linebacker William Weller stepped in front of the throw, giving the Panthers the ball right back at the Stetson 21.
“That Tampa Two defense was one of the things they did that we had not seen before,” Tentler said. “I should have recognized it, but I wasn’t expecting their linebacker to drop into that middle zone, but they were just a sound defense. We knew they were going to be sound. They’re a good team.”
Five plays later, Nichols was stopped short of the goal line on second down, but when the ball popped out, teammate Zac Phillips fell on it in the end zone for a touchdown to give BSC the lead 35-28.
After Stetson punted on its next possession, Donald Payne made his presence felt with a sack of Beacham, forcing a fumble that Payne scooped up and carried in for a touchdown. The PAT attempt by James LaGamma was blocked, a problem that reared its head again later in a more crucial situation.
That blocked field goal to start the fourth quarter turned into what was essentially a game-sealing touchdown when Nichols crashed into the end zone from three yards out.
Tentler’s fourth interception later in the quarter gave the Panthers a chance to go for the knockout. Beacham delivered, hitting Sam Vermilyea for a 49-yard score on the first play after the turnover for the final points of the night.
For the Hatters, the preseason is over. Stetson will embark on its first season as a member of the Pioneer Football League next Saturday when the Hatters host defending league champion San Diego. USD lost to Harvard 42-20 on Saturday to fall to 1-2 on the year.
“With San Diego coming up, we will have to be on our game and not have any flaws,” Payne said. “We are ready for conference play. We’ll be down about this game for 24 hours, but then we know that we have to get right back to the grind to get ready for San Diego.”
Tentler said the team had better get their mistakes straightened out because they know San Diego will be the best team they have seen.
“We’re starting with one of the best in the conference,” Tentler said. “We know they have two returning All-American defensive ends, two All-American wide receivers. It’s not getting any easier. We know it’s going to get harder and harder as we go along. We can’t just throw our season away just because we won one, and just lose all the rest. That’s not what we’re about. We’re going to come back even harder. We’re going to try and get a win, and that’s what we expect to do.”
• Stetson’s Donald Payne and Glenn Adesoji were suspended for the first quarter of tonight’s game for a violation of team rules.
• Stetson quarterbacks saw their season-opening streak of 67 passes without an interception come to an end in the first quarter when Ryan Tentler was picked off in the end zone by Devante Smith.
• The two teams combined for 636 yards of total offense in the first half, and both teams scored a defensive touchdown.