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  • Daniel Hooker

Catamounts Upset No. 7/8 Samford to Open SoCon Play

Sophomore QB Cole Gonzales threw for 262 yards and two touchdowns while classmate Desmond Reid rushed for 170 yards and a score as a part of a balanced offensive attack as Western Carolina outlasted and upset defending Southern Conference champion No. 7/8 Samford 30-7 on Saturday at E.J. Whitmire Stadium / Bob Waters Field in the league opener for both squads.

Saturday’s home opener endured a five-and-a-half-hour weather delay as lightning danced around western North Carolina, chasing the teams from the field early in the second quarter. Play resumed just before 9 p.m., under the lights with WCU scoring 16 unanswered points while pitching a shutout defensively over the final three quarters.

Aided by six sacks, the Catamount defense limited Samford to just 46 rushing yards as a part of 361 yards of total offense. Conversely, WCU managed 546 total yards nearly evenly split between 284 on the ground and 262 through the air. WCU dominated the time of possession, controlling the football for over 41 minutes while running 84 offensive plays from scrimmage.

Richard McCollum scored 12 of WCU’s 30 points in the winning effort, connecting on three field goals of 23, 41, and 18 yards while also splitting the uprights on three PATs. The Sanford, N.C., native connected on a pair of field goals in the final 98 seconds of the second quarter, both coming after the delay.

Gonzales spread the ball around to eight different receivers with four finishing with five catches apiece, adding 68 rushing yards in the win. Sophomore WR AJ Colombo finished with five catches for a team-best 79 yards including a 21-yard first-quarter touchdown while sophomore Censere Lee matched with five receptions for 36 yards and a six-yard second-quarter score. Freshman Corey Washington tallied five catches for 21 yards with David White hauling in five passes for 12 total yards.

Reid just missed his career-high on the ground, rushing 27 times for 170 yards, capping the game’s scoring with a two-yard TD run midway through the fourth quarter. Branson Adams rushed for 51 yards on seven carries in the winning effort.

After Western Carolina’s game-opening 14-play drive was stopped at the three-yard line, Samford wasted little time in moving 97 yards in just seven plays with preseason SoCon Offensive Player of the Year QB Michael Hiers hitting TE Michael Vice on an eight-yard touchdown for the 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter.

The Catamounts responded with the equalizing score on another long drive, moving 76 yards in 10 plays before Gonzales hit Colombo in the left flat. The Waxhaw, N.C., product juked his way around a pair of Bulldog defenders to slide into the endzone to even the score at seven apiece.

WCU took the lead for good early in the second quarter as Gonzales hit Lee for a six-yard score on the third play of the quarter as the home squad pulled ahead 14-7 at the 13:42 mark of the frame.

On the ensuing possession and backed up after a holding penalty, Hiers scrambled for a 16-yard gain before WCU’s Va Lealaimatafao delivered a big hit that jarred the football loose before Jayelin Davis fell on it for the Catamounts resulting in the game’s lone turnover. After the turnover, teams were chased from the field by lightning which started the lengthy delay.

Resuming just before 9 p.m., neither team would light the scoreboard until the final two minutes before a shortened halftime as McCollum hit a pair of field goals to push WCU’s advantage to 13, 20-7 at halftime.

Late in the third quarter, McCollum again found points for the Catamounts with a short, 18-yard field goal to push the advantage to 16 entering the final frame. Reid then pushed the game out of reach with a two-yard touchdown rush at the 8:02 mark of the fourth quarter capping another long scoring drive as the Catamounts moved 71 yards in 10 plays.

Hiers completed 21-of-34 passes for 315 yards and the first-quarter touchdown. Chandler Smith caught a team-best six passes for 46 yards with Ty King amassing a game-high 96 receiving yards on three catches to lead the Bulldogs.

Defensively for the Catamounts, Rod Gattison and Lee Campbell were credited with a team-best five tackles with Gattison posting a pair for loss. Jayelin Davis posted four stops including 1.5 sacks and a fumble recovery. Also posting sacks for the Catamounts were defensive linemen Marlon Alexander, Chris Morgan, and Curtis Fann Jr., who forced a fumble on his strip sack. Lealaimatafao knocked the football loose on one of his three tackles.

Western Carolina hits the road next Saturday, traveling to Richmond, Ky., to face the Eastern Kentucky Colonels (0-2) next Saturday at Roy Kidd Stadium with kickoff scheduled at 6 p.m. EKU plays its first home game of the season after opening with back-to-back FBS opponents, visiting Cincinnati (L, 66-13) and Kentucky (L, 28-17).

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