TUSKEGEE, Ala. – Football players are noted for having a singular focus but it is interesting all of the things that they notice, even in the midst of battle.
So when Miles erased a 17-point deficit in the third quarter to comeback and defeat No. 13 Tuskegee 26-23, the thoughts went back to things that happened prior to this contest and – perhaps – fueled the Golden Bears to their fifth straight win and a spot in next week’s SIAC Championship Game against Albany State.
“We’ve been waiting for this game all year,” said senior linebacker Rodrick Holloman. “They came and popped fireworks last year (after Tuskegee beat Miles and advanced to the 2014 SIAC title game). But we didn’t want to pop fireworks. We just wanted to be classy and prove it with our pads.”
David Whipple’s 6-yard touchdown run with 3:11 left capped a 24-carry, 174-yard effort and furious comeback by the Golden Bears (6-4, 5-0). After head coach Reginald Ruffin was doused with a celebratory water cooler shower, he had nothing but praise for his team’s effort against a Tuskegee (8-2, 4-1) team that was picked during the preseason to win the Western Division and had won 18 consecutive homecoming games prior to Saturday.
“Our kids didn’t give up. They just kept fighting,” Ruffin said. “Tuskegee is a great football team and (TU) Coach (Willie) Slater is a great mentor. But we just kept fighting and I’m so proud of them.”
This contest was not Miles’ best effort when it came to protecting the football. Whipple threw three interceptions but it was the first play of the came – a completed pass to Trey Smith that was fumbled and recovered by Tuskegee – the put the Golden Bears in an early hole. Four plays later, Kevin Lacey connected with Marquel Gardner on a 12-yard score that gave the Golden Tigers a 7-0 advantage.
The Golden Bears struggled to move the ball in the first half while the defense did its best to slow the Tuskegee attack. The signature moment of the contest, though, may have come late in the first half.
The Golden Tigers faced fourth-and-goal from the Miles 4-yard line with less than 30 seconds left in the second quarter. Instead of taking the easy field goal attempt, Tuskegee tried to punch it in the end zone. But Anthony Hardy (team-high seven tackles) stuffed Lacey and TU left without any points.
Still, when Lacey threw his third touchdown of the game – a 4-yard toss to Leo Gilbert – the Golden Tigers led 20-3 and Miles did not look like a team that was capable of mounting a comeback against the SIAC’s top defense.
The defense, though, was still confident in its ability to slow down Tuskegee.
“We had to fix some simple stuff. Alignment and assignment,” Holloman said. “It was nothing they were doing to us…it was all us! That’s all we told each other, alignment and assignment, and do your job.”
From that point on, the light bulb came on for the Golden Bears offense and it was Whipple who flipped the switch. A 45-yard run by the junior signal caller moved Miles deep into Tuskegee territory and Jonathan Clark topped off the drive with a 3-yard run that cut the score to 20-10.
“We started reading the blocks better and the offensive line started having faith in us,” Clark said. “We started hitting the holes and stopped second-guessing ourselves.”
After forcing Tuskegee to punt on the ensuing possession, Miles’ special teams went to work. Edward Galloway blocked Kemuel Lawrence punt out of the back of the end zone for a safety and within 91 seconds, it was a one-possession game.
Lawrence connected on a 39-yard field goal to give the Golden Tigers some breathing room but Miles stormed right back. Clark capped an 11-play, 84-yard drive with an 11-yard touchdown run to cut the deficit to 23-19. After Whipple’s score to take the lead, the defense made it difficult for Lacey to breathe in the pocket, forcing incompletions on third and fourth down to seal the victory.
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