LEWISBURG, Pa. - Al Cobb threw for four touchdowns and ran for another in a spectacular collegiate debut, but the Bucknell Bison took the lead for good on a 62-yard fourth quarter punt return for a touchdown and went on to defeat the VMI Keydets, 42-38, in NCAA football action Saturday in Lewisburg, Pa. The game was the season opener for both clubs, and was the teams' second consecutive meeting after also ending the 2013 season by facing one another.
VMI (0-1) never led in Saturday's game, but had rallied from an early 14-0 deficit to tie the score four different times, the last of which came late in the third quarter, when Cobb found Dane Forlines for a 20-yard touchdown to knot the score at 35. Less than a minute into the fourth quarter, however, Josh Brake of Bucknell (1-0) broke a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown that gave the Bison a 42-35 lead they would not relinquish.
Dillon Christopher added a field goal with 5:26 to go, cutting the Keydet deficit to 42-38, but the homestanding Bison were able to run out the clock to preserve their narrow victory.
Cobb, a redshirt freshman who was named the starter for the opening game late last week, finished 27 of 40 for 308 yards. He became just the fourth player in VMI history to be responsible for 30 points or more in a single game, joining Tony Scales (1990), Dave Brown (1986) and Bobby Mitchell (1961). He also became the eighth quarterback in VMI history to throw four or more touchdowns in a single game, and his 27 completions tied for the third-most in VMI annals.
Other standouts included running back Deon Watts, who ran for a career-high 97 yards, and Doug Burton who caught a team-high seven passes for 109 yards and a touchdown. Bucknell was led by C.J. Williams, who piled up 164 yards rushing on the night.
Bucknell jumped ahead early, scoring the game’s first 14 points. Matt DelMauro was responsible for both touchdowns, and after he scampered 56 yards for a score with 2:11 left in the first quarter, the home team led 14-0. The Keydets came back early in the second period, however, when Cobb took advantage of three Bucknell penalties and a critical 3rd and 17 conversion pass to Burton. That was part of an eight-play, 92-yard drive that Burton capped with a 20-yard touchdown reception, putting VMI on the board, 14-7 with 14:10 left in the half.
VMI struck again on its next possession, helped by a 3rd and 1, 13-yard swing pass to fullback Kyle Vardo. Aaron Sanders grabbed a 38-yard scoring strike on the next play, tying the score, 14-14 with 10:37 on the clock.
The Bison answered that play, however, with a 50-yard R.J. Nitti to Brake touchdown that made it a 21-14 game at the 7:21 mark. The barn-burner kept going on the next Bucknell possession, when VMI redshirt freshman Ryan Francis sacked Nitti. The BU quarterback fumbled the ball and Francis fell on it for the turnover. Seven plays later, Cobb found Matthew Nicholson with a seven-yard touchdown pass to tie the game again, 21-21.
The home team used a quick strike approach to score again before halftime, as Williams had a 49-yard run on the first play after the kickoff. That moved Bucknell into VMI territory with under 30 seconds to go in the half, and three plays later, Williams scored from one yard out to make the halftime score 28-21, Bison.
After getting a potentially crucial defensive stop, the Keydets got the ball back early in the third quarter. The drive started with a 29-yard Cobb to Burton completion, but after two ineffective runs, VMI faced a 3rd and 9. The Keydets converted thanks to a roughing the passer penalty, and four plays later, Cobb ran it in from a yard out to tie the game once more, 28-all.
The Bison answered with a steady dose of Williams. A six-play, 75-yard drive that took 2:36 saw all 75 yards notched by the running back, and he capped the spurt with a three-yard plunge that gave the home team a 35-28 lead with 6:17 left in the third quarter.
Cobb promptly marched his team back down the field, going 65 yards in 11 plays that included a 13-yard third down conversion to Burton and a six-yard Deon Watts first down run on 3rd and 4. Five plays after Watts’ run, Cobb found Forlines for a 20-yard strike that tied the game at 35-all.
That would prove to be the final tie of the night. After a Bucknell punt, VMI went three and out to start the fourth quarter. It was the first Keydet three and out of the game, and it would be the pivotal moment as Brake ran the Hayden Alford punt back 62 yards for the decisive touchdown with 13:08 to play.
Once again, Cobb answered with a long drive, but this one was stymied at the Bucknell 17-yard line. Christopher knocked home his first field goal of the year from 34 yards out, making it a 42-38 game with 5:26 to play. DelMauro then iced the game on the ensuing drive, running for a first down with just over a minute to play as the home team held on for the victory.
Bucknell finished the game with a 465-421 edge in total offense. The Keydet yardage marked its most total offense in a season opener since the 2008 season, and VMI held a substantial edge in time of possession, 36:59 to 23:01. That TOP advantage was VMI’s largest-such edge in a game since Oct. 6, 2012, when the Keydets had the ball for 15:32 longer than Presbyterian College.
VMI football returns to action Sept. 6, taking on the Bowling Green Falcons in Bowling Green, Ohio. Action gets underway at 3:30 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on ESPN3.
QUOTES – VMI Head Coach Sparky Woods
"We obviously couldn't stop them on defense. We played pretty good on most downs, we just gave up big plays either in the run or the pass - huge chunks of yards to change the field position around."
"I was disappointed in the punt (return for a TD) we had a bad snap but still that shouldn't keep us from tackling the guy on a punt return. I think that could have been a big difference."
"We had the ball down there at the end. I thought we had better go for it. I was afraid we couldn't hold them, but we ending up taking the penalty. The right thing to do was kick the field goal. I didn't want to go into overtime with them because I didn't think we could stop them from running the football. I figured if we could hold them one more time, we'd have a shot to win the game.
"They played good and we played good in spurts. I thought our kicker played well and our receivers made some plays. The backs ran well, held on to the football and didn't turn the ball over and we did get a turnover on defense which led to a touchdown for us. I thought Al Cobb played well."
"They did a nice job of executing. It's tough to come up here and beat them, but we had our opportunities and it's a shame that a punt return turned out to be a difference."
"We're going to see a lot if good plays (in the film) and on defense, too, but the big plays took it away from us."