MOBILE, Ala. - Tyrell Pearson had not set foot on the playing field prior to the University of South Alabama football program's match-up against Western Kentucky on Saturday. He didn't see action in any of the first three quarters against the Hilltoppers, either.
But the senior cornerback made two plays in the final two-plus minutes that helped determine the outcome of the contest.
Pearson intercepted a pass and ran it back 49 yards to set up Trey Fetner's game-winning touchdown, then sealed the victory with an interception in the end zone on the Toppers' final play from scrimmage in the Jaguars' 31-24 Sun Belt Conference victory over WKU at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
"The game was as exciting as it gets. I can't take any more of those kind of games," Jag head coach Joey Jones said afterward. "That's three in a row that have come down to the last play. But I'll take the win.
"I'm so excited for our guys, they fought through until the end. Last year we weren't making plays at the end of the game — this year we are."
With the game tied at 24 and 10-and-a-half minutes remaining in the contest, USA (2-1, 1-0 Sun Belt) took over on downs just shy of midfield after getting a stop on fourth-and-two. Ross Metheny connected with Shavarez Smith for a 50-yard gain to the WKU-3 on the first snap of the possession, but after the Toppers (1-2, 0-1 SBC) allowed two yards on the next three plays they saw a 17-yard field-goal attempt sail wide right.
WKU crossed midfield on its ensuing possession, but on its first snap in Jag territory Pat Moore pressured Brandon Doughty with the result an Alex Page interception that gave USA the ball back. But the Hilltoppers answered with their own takeaway after Jonathan Dowling forced a fumble following a completion that Cam Thomas recovered at the WKU-17.
On third-and-10 Doughty found Nicholas Norris for a gain of 29 yards, but on the very next play Pearson stepped in front of Doughty's pass and took it down the left sideline. He was called for unsportsmanlike conduct before reaching the end zone, however, leaving the Jaguars to cover 16 yards in the final two-plus minutes. Jay Jones went up the middle for two on the first play, then Metheny went around the edge on the left side of the line for a 12-yard pickup. Two plays later, Fetner gave the Jags' their first lead of the night with 1:38 left in the contest.
Doughty marched the Toppers 53 yards down the field in 11 plays — converting on fourth down once with an 11-yard pass to Tyler Higbee — but with WKU facing fourth-and-10 from the 13-yard line Pearson picked off another pass to seal the win.
"We study film a lot, I figured I could jump the route. They'd been doing the smash concept all game, so I took a chance," Pearson said of the first interception. "I had to make up for the unsportsmanlike conduct, I had to make another big play to make it up for my team."
Metheny completed 11-of-15 passes for 193 yards, totalling 215 yards of offense after adding 22 on the ground, while Brandon Bridge threw for 77 and ran for 42 after entering the game in the second half. Jay Jones paced the USA rushing attack with 49 yards on 11 carries, while Wes Saxton and Jeremé Jones caught four passes each for 91 and 68 yards, respectively. Smith ended the night with 72 yards on three receptions as well, as the Jaguars posted 414 yards of offense and averaged more than six yards per snap.
"I think we executed at a higher level tonight, offensively," stated Metheny. "Going in tonight I think we had a better game plan and to be able to respond to adversity the way we did. We just executed at a high level tonight; we can see what we can do offensively when we do that."
Qudarius Ford had 12 stops and Enrique Williams added 11 to lead the Jag defense, with the former also breaking up two passes. Charles Watson posted eight tackles, Clifton Crews was credited with six, and both Bryson James and Jesse Kelley added five. Romelle Jones recorded 1½ sacks among his four stops, while Page had three tackles — including 1½ behind the line of scrimmage — and a pass break up to go along with the first interception of his career.
"Defensively we kind of got behind early on, but we made our adjustments and held them the rest of the game," Page explained. "We tackled better, played the deep ball better and really made improvements, not only from week one, but last week too. We held on at the end, so that was big for us."
On the opening drive of the game, Antonio Andrews broke a 40-yard run down the right sideline to set up a 16-yard scoring pass from Doughty to Higbee two plays later, which capped an 89-yard march that made the score 7-0 and took two minutes and 40 seconds off the clock. But the Jags answered with a touchdown drive on their first possession as well, covering 75 yards in 10 plays and over four minutes, evening the score when Metheny plunged over the line on fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line. Metheny found Jeremé Jones on USA's second snap for an 18-yard pickup, then gainedd 13 more on a rush around left end. He hit Smith for an additional 15 yards to move the Jaguars inside the WKU-10.
The Toppers regained the lead with a half-minute remaining in the opening period on Doughty's second touchdown pass, this time to Norris on third-and-goal from the USA-5. WKU's second straight scoring drive used seven-and-a-half minutes, covering 79 yards in 15 plays. The Jaguars scored again on their second drive as well, with a 37-yard pass from Metheny to Saxton setting up a 42-yard Aleem Sunanon field goal with just over a minute gone in the second period.
Norris scored again on a 20-yard completion from Doughty with just under six minutes remaining in the half, pushing the Hilltopper advantage to 21-10. The drive covered 68 yards, with a 30-yard pass from Doughty to Higbee moving WKU into the red zone.
Doughty guided the Topper offense to 427 yards, completing 27-of-47 passes for 282 yards and three scores. Norris led all players with 95 yards on seven receptions, and Higbee added five catches for 67 more. Andrews gained 122 yards on 15 carries and caught five passes for 38 more en route to finishing with 197 all-purpose yards.
Sunanon put the first points of the second half on the board with a 43-yard field goal on USA's first possession after the intermission, with 24 of the 35 yards on the drive coming on a completion from Bridge to Saxton down the right sideline. After Romelle Jones, Kelley and Williams combined to stop Leon Allen on third-and-two from the WKU-46, Bridge marched the Jags 89 yards down the field in 14 plays before Jay Jones crossed the goal line from four yards out with less than three-and-a-half minutes to go in the third quarter; when Jake Howton hit a wide open Metheny on the two-point conversion the game was tied 21-21.
USA converted all three third downs on the drive, including twice on rushes of 23 and 15 yards by Bridge, while the touchdown was the first of Jones' career.
"The second quarter we got complacent; we became flat. Coach Jones called my number and said, 'We need something big out of you,'" said Bridge. "I said, 'I'm going to make this play.' I'm going to keep on making plays, keep on playing how I play."
The Hilltoppers regained the lead for the final time, 24-21, 13 seconds into the final quarter when Garrett Schwettman converted a career-long 44-yard field goal.
Xavius Boyd matched Ford with 12 stops to pace the Topper defense, with 1½ for loss, while Dowling was credited with nine stops. Gavin Rocker added seven and Arius Wright posted six while four others had five each.
"That's a tough loss, we had our opportunities to win the game," said WKU head coach Bobby Petrino. "Starting right at the end of the first half, we have control of the game and a chance on a two-minute drive to go score, and we don't take advantage of the opportunity. (South Alabama) made some plays in the second half. We had our chances at the end; we dropped a couple of touchdown passes and threw an interception, so we just didn't get it done. I thought we would come down here and perform well, so I'm pretty disappointed in our performance but you have to take your hat off to South Alabama. They played well."
"I want to commend coach Petrino and his team. Western Kentucky is a great football team; we knew that coming in (to the game)," Jones stated. "They have a first-class organization — they do things right. For us to come out on the winning side against those guys is definitely the biggest win we've had since I've been here at South Alabama. You saw how big and physical they (WKU) were, and our guys stood up to the challenge."
After a week off, the Jaguars will next be in action with a game at Tennessee on Saturday, Sept. 28. Kickoff time has yet to be announced for that contest.
For more information about South Alabama athletics, check back with www.usajaguars.com, and follow the Jaguars at www.twitter.com/USAJaguarSports. Season tickets for all Jaguar athletic events can be purchased by calling (251) 461-1USA (1872).
Courtesy of : usajaguars.com
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