CULLOWHEE, N.C. - Redshirt freshman quarterback Austin Coulling got his first career start Saturday afternoon against the Western Carolina Catamounts, and he nearly earned his first career victory.
But WCU, after blocking a VMI field goal, drove 80 yards in the fourth quarter, scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 54 seconds left to hand the Keydets a heartbreaking 32-29 setback in Cullowhee, N.C.
Coulling, starting in place of the record-setting quarterback Al Cobb, who was injured in last week’s contest against Furman, acquitted himself well, completing 18 of 25 passes for 261 yards and a touchdown. And he led the Keydets, who fell to 3-6 overall, 1-5 against Southern Conference foes, on a short drive to set up a field goal attempt that would have given VMI a 32-24 lead.
But Dillon Christopher’s 37-yard try was blocked, the second blocked field goal of the game recorded by the WCU special teams, which also blocked a pair of PAT attempts. After the block, the Catamounts needed just five yards to drive 80 yards for the go-ahead score, with quarterback Tyrie Adams hooking up with Terryon Robinson for a 53-yard touchdown. Adams then passed to Spearman Robinson for the two-point conversion to give Western Carolina the three-point advantage.
The Keydets still had a chance to respond, and after two Western Carolina penalties, VMI moved all the way to the Catamount 35-yard line. But Coulling was sacked for a 6-yard loss, and he tossed his third interception of the day to seal the victory for the Catamounts.
With the win, Western Carolina improved to 2-7 overall, snapping a six-game losing streak and picking up their first SoCon win of the season. VMI’s skid grew to four in row.
The Keydets fell behind 14-3 early in the contest before beginning a rally late in the first half. Tyain Smith rushed for an 8-yard touchdown with just over five minutes to play before intermission, and when Coulling connected with Smith for a 6-yard touchdown pass early in the third quarter, VMI had trimmed its deficit to 21-15.
Western Carolina responded with a field goal, but the Keydets posted the next two scores to take the lead. Smith bulled his way into the end zone from a yard away, with Ryan Swingle tacking on the two-point conversion, and Daz Palmer added a 2-yard TD run with 5:05 to play to give VMI a 29-24 advantage.
After struggling the last few weeks, VMI’s rushing attack was off and running Saturday. The Keydets pounded out 192 yards on the ground, with Palmer carrying the ball 19 times for 136 yards. Smith toted the ball 18 times for 79 yards and the two touchdowns. Coupled with Coulling’s passing effort, the Keydets piled up 453 yards of total offense.
After Palmer’s touchdown, the VMI defense, which was led by 13 tackles each from Greg Sanders and Allan Cratsenberg on the day, stymied Western Carolina on a fourth-and-one attempt late in the final quarter. That gave the Keydets the ball at the WCU 30 to set up the late-game dramatics.
The Keydets return home next Friday to take on rival The Citadel, who is ranked fifth in the country, in the Military Classic of the South. Kickoff in Foster Stadium is scheduled for 1:30 p.m.
QUOTES - VMI Head Coach Scott Wachenheim
"I was really proud of the effort the team played with and we had some freshmen step up. Daz Palmer rushing for more yards than Detrez Newsome- who would have thought that coming in- and Tyain Smith did a good job running hard and Kuony Deng on defense and Kaleb Tucker on special teams and defense. For the third week in a row, Kaleb has done a good job covering punts for us. I was really proud of how those guys stepped up and played. I thought Austin Coulling played his tail off and gave us a chance to win the game and really fought hard the entire game."
"We just had too many turnovers and when you lose the turnover battle, it's hard to win games. You can't have four kicks blocked in a game and that's tough to overcome. You got to be able to make field goals to win close ball games and extra points and we couldn't get that done. It's been a point of concern all year long and we work on it every week and we work on getting the ball up and work on kicking the ball on time. Obviously, we're going to have to look at that film really hard and do something better if we're going to have a chance to win any ball games further down the road."