|COURTESY SAVANNAH STATE UNIVERSITY ATHLETICS|
A home-opening crowd of 5,374 at T.A. Wright Stadium watched as SSU (1-2 overall, 1-0 MEAC) won its first game since beating MEAC foe Florida A&M University, 37-27, on Oct. 3, 2015, at T.A. Wright Stadium. The win also snapped SSU's 16-game losing streak to Bethune-Cookman (0-3, 0-1 MEAC), which was picked to finish second in the MEAC preseason poll. Last season, Bethune-Cookman was a MEAC co-champion with North Carolina A&T and North Carolina Central.
"There are all types of different emotions going through me right now," said Frazier, a senior whose only run was the game-winner. "I'm proud of the defense. I'm proud of the coaching staff. I'm proud of all my teammates. We just need to get this behind us and go attack the MEAC. Many people have downgraded us but we're about to do big things this year."
SSU's victory was the first for head coach Erik Raeburn, who in March was hired away from Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., where he compiled a 78-13 record from 2008-15 and earned five trips to the NCAA Division III playoffs.
"I'm so proud of them," Raeburn said of his players, who celebrated by dousing him with a bucket of ice-water. "They just hung in there and found a way to win."
Bethune-Cookman took a 3-0 lead when Uriel Hernandez kicked a 39-yard field goal with 2:16 left in the first quarter. Hernandez missed a 32-yard field goal attempt with 12:43 remaining before halftime.
SSU tied the game on John Barron's 38-yard field goal with 7:03 left before halftime.
The Tigers took a 10-3 lead into halftime thanks to freshman quarterback T.J. Bell's 26-yard touchdown pass to senior Jeremiah Harris with 3:04 left in the second quarter. Harris initially bobbled the ball as he attempted to catch it but somehow, without breaking his stride, snared it and darted through traffic into the end zone. Barron kicked the extra point.
In the fourth quarter, SSU botched a punt attempt, giving Bethune-Cookman the ball at the Tigers' 2-yard line. On the ensuing play, Wildcats quarterback Akevious Williams ran up the middle for a 2-yard touchdown. Hernandez kicked the extra point, tying the game with 7:19 left to play.
"That fourth quarter, we lost all momentum," Raeburn said. "We had the bad punt snap that gave them the ball on the 2-yard line, and they punched one in for a touchdown. We could have hung our hats and said, 'Here we go again,' which has been the Achilles' heel for (SSU) in the past."
Bethune-Cookman's Hernandez attempted a 52-yard field goal with 1:34 to play but it fell short.
In overtime, Bethune-Cookman got the ball first and began its drive at SSU's 25-yard line. Running back Tupac Isme ran for 5 yards before SSU senior defensive end Marquis Smith forced a fumble, which was recovered by Bethune-Cookman offensive lineman Phillip Norman at SSU's 15-yard line.
Isme then ran for no gain, followed by a run for a 5-yard loss in which he recovered his own fumble. Bethune-Cookman's Williams was intercepted by SSU sophomore cornerback Darrell "Vanquez" Bonner at SSU's 6-yard line.
"The defense, man, they carried the load tonight," Raeburn said.
SSU started its winning drive at Bethune-Cookman's 25-yard line and Arshon Spaulding ran for 2 yards. Freshman Blake Dever, who made his second straight start at quarterback for SSU, completed a pass to junior wide receiver Tino Smith for a 15-yard gain to Bethune-Cookman's 8-yard line.
On first-and-goal, Spaulding ran for a 1-yard loss. SSU called a timeout. The Tigers, who finished the game with 73 yards rushing (64 yards by Spaulding), considered throwing the ball since their running game had struggled, but Raeburn said SSU assistant coach Russell DeMasi talked him out of it.
"We were going to throw a pass that we like to throw from the left hash but we were on the right hash," Raeburn said. "We decided to take the timeout and we debated which one to do. Coach DeMasi convinced me to run that one and thank God he did."
After the timeout, SSU junior running back Nicholas Bentley made two big-time blocks against Bethune-Cookman defenders, springing Frazier on a jet sweep to the right. Downfield, SSU's Harris blocked a Bethune-Cookman cornerback, providing Frazier the space he needed to sprint untouched into the end zone.
SSU's Dever finished 9-of-23 passing for 114 yards without an interception. Bell was 5-of-6 passing for 74 yards, including a touchdown, and threw an interception.
"I didn't want it to be this close but it happened," Dever said. "We just played together and stuck together through it all. We played as a family. We talked all through the summer about playing as a family. This is a very big win for us."
SSU's Smith, who this season moved from linebacker to defensive end, finished with a game-high 12 tackles, including 1.5 sacks and three tackles for loss. He also forced two fumbles.
"We set the tone for this season," Smith said. "This is the new Savannah State. We've got a different mindset, different leaders, different coaches who have come in here and brought the right mentality. It doesn't matter who we play, we're going to give it our all."
SSU junior linebacker Mulik Simmons made 11 tackles, including a half-sack, and sophomore defensive end Stefen Banks had 10 tackles, including a half-sack. Linebacker Ellison Burns, a junior from Savannah's Benedictine Military School, had a half-sack. Burns and Simmons combined to sack Bethune-Cookman's Williams for an 8-yard loss on third-and-8 in the fourth quarter, forcing the Wildcats to punt. SSU sacked Williams three times.
The Tigers made 81 tackles, including nine for minus-44 yards. Junior defensive lineman Quaron Hilliard recovered a fumble. Singleton intercepted a pass in overtime.
SSU will travel to Tallahassee, Fla., to play Florida A&M at 6 p.m. Saturday.
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