Rocky Mount, N.C. - Junior quarterback Nate Gardner tossed two touchdowns and rushed for another to help lead his N.C. Wesleyan football team to a 35-25 USA South win over Maryville College on Saturday afternoon in Rocky Mount. Sophomore defensive back Eddie Graham sealed the victory with a 99-yard interception return with three minutes remaining, setting a new Bishop record for the longest pick-6 in program history.
Wesleyan set the tone early with an impressive opening drive that saw the Bishops march 73 yards in 11 plays. Gardner capped the drive with an 18-yard scoring strike to senior wide receiver Brandon Leake. The Bishops proceeded to force a punt on the Scots' first possession, but a costly fumble deep in their own territory eventually resulted in a 20-yard field goal by MVC's Ian Hubbs. Maryville closed out the first quarter scoring with a 2-yard run by Elijah Chenier to take their first lead, 10-7, heading to the second.
Quarter two proved to be a back-and-forth affair that began with Gardner hitting freshman Manesseh Missick from 25 yards out for a 14-10 Bishop lead, but MVC countered with a 25-yard rushing TD by Chase Christmas to climb back on top. Just before the break, however, Gardner orchestrated a 6-play, 64-yard drive that ended with the junior diving in for the 3-yard score. The Bishops would take their 21-17 lead into the half, and they would not trail again.
The Scots opened the third quarter scoring with a 21-yarder from Hubbs to pull with one, 21-20, with 6:21 left in the period, but Wesleyan again answered with a methodical drive capped by a 4-yard scoring rush from sophomore Darius Byrd that made the score 28-20 heading into the fourth. Hubbs opened the final period with yet another field goal, connecting from 36 yards out to pull the Scots to within five, 28-23. MVC's defense proceeded to get the the punt it needed to set up a potential game-winning drive.
A trio of costly penalty's against the Bishops allowed MVC to move the ball deep into Wesleyan territory, but on 2nd-and-7 from the NCWC 8-yardline, Graham jumped the route for his second interception of the season, sprinting 99 yards for the game-sealing TD. The Bishops took over on downs on Maryville's ensuing possession, and after draining the clock to 27 seconds, took a strategic safety that provided the 35-25 final.
Gardner finished 14-of-20 through the air for 172 yards and two TDs, while junior Adrian Minondo provided a huge spark in the ground game with 73 rushing yards. Additionally, junior wideout Trey Lancaster hauled in six catches for 81 yards. Defensively, senior Jaylon Johnson racked up a game-high 11 tackles, while Antonio Johnson added eight stops and a key sack.
For Maryville (2-2, 0-1 USA South), QB Adam Diggs was 21-of-40 for 222 yards and the pick, with Elijah Hairston anchoring the running game with 84 yards.
Wesleyan (1-3, 1-1 USA South) will celebrate its 2017 Homecoming next Saturday at Rocky Mount Athletic Stadium when the Bishops welcome Ferrum College for a 1:00pm conference tilt.