By Carey Phillips
T.J. Jones scored from a yard out on fourth-and-goal with 53 seconds left in the game Saturday giving Western Carolina a 32-29 Southern Conference win over UTChattanooga in the season’s final football game at E.J. Whitmire Stadium/Bob Waters Field.
A crowd of 9,089 and a regional television audience saw the Catamounts (6-5, 4-4) clinch the program’s first winning record since 2017. They finished fifth in the conference.
The loss may have cost the Mocs (7-4, 5-3), who ended up tied for third in the league, a spot in the Football Championship Division playoffs.
Trailing 29-24, WCU drove 75 yards in 13 plays for the winning score. Highlights included a 17-yard pass from Cole Gonzales to Censere Lee and Desmond Reid’s 28-yard run. Gonzales passed to Ajay Belanger for the two-point conversion.
Gonzales completed 24 of 38 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns. Lee caught six passes for 85 yards, and Jones’ eight receptions went for 66 yards.
Reid was his team’s top rusher with seven carries for 58 yards.
UT-C’s Preston Hutchinson connected on 29 of 48 passes for 323 yards. Nine of the passes went to Sam Phillips for 106 yards.
Ailym Ford carried 29 times for 102 yards.
Kameron Brown intercepted Gonzales’ pass early in the second half, but the Mocs were unable to take advantage. It did allow them to flip the field and force the Cats to start at their 4 after a punt.
On third down, Gonzales was called for intentional grounding in the end zone giving UT-C a safety and a 16-14 lead with 9:58 to play in the third quarter.
Javin Whatley returned the free kick 35 yards setting the stage for a 51-yard drive in eight plays, including Ford’s 12-yard run and a 12-yard pass from Hutchinson to Phillips. Hutchinson hit Jamoi Mayes on a 15-yard TD pass with 6:07 left in the third period. Aaron Sears, who was three of three on extra points, made it 23-14.
Western responded with a 61-yard march in seven plays. Gonzales completed passes of 19 yards to Jones and 17 yards to Lee. A 17-yard TD pass from Gonzales to Jones and Richard McCollum’s third PAT cut the gap to 23-21 with 3:06 remaining in the third stanza.
UT-C was stopped on fourth-and-one at the 22.
Gonzales completed passes of 29 and 20 yards tom Lee and 11 yards to Belanger putting McCollum in position for a 34-yard field goal and a 24-23 lead with 8:59 to go in the game.
Hutchinson had completions of 13 yards to Tyron Arnett and 17 yards to Mayes in a 76-yard, seven-play drive. It was capped by a 26-yard pass from Hutchinson to Camden Overton giving the Mocs a 29-24 edge with 6:13 on the clock. A conversion pass failed.
UT-C put together a solid drive on the game’s first possession but came up empty when Sears missed 41-yard field goal.
The Mocs got the ball back after a punt and drove 81 yards in 12 plays. Hutchinson started it with passes of 14 yards to Tyler Smith and 24 yards to Whatley. It concluded with an 18-yard pass from Hutchinson to Whatley for a 7-0 lead with 3:19 to play in the first quarter.
WCU had to punt but got the ball back at the UT-C 20 after a mishandled snap on a punt. Reid swept around the right side for a TD on the next play for a 7-7 tie with four seconds on the clock.
Both teams punted on their next two possessions before Taurus Dotson picked off Hutchinson’s pass and had a 26-yard return to the 8. Gonzales completed a 5-yard TD pass to Reid two plays later giving the Cats a 14-7 lead with 7:49 to play in the half.
After an exchange of punts, the Mocs put together an 80-yard drive in 12 plays, which included Hutchinson passes to Phillips of 18, 10 and 13 yards. He also had a 12-yard pass to Mayes and ran for 11 yards. Hutchinson’s 3-yard TD pass to KeShawn Toney produced a 14-14 tie with 17 seconds left in the half.
UT-C’s Ty Boeck led all tacklers with 11, and Hayward McQueen topped Western with 10.