CHARLESTON, W.Va. Eighteen seconds removed from pure euphoria, Ashland tasted a bitter last-minute defeat to George Washington on Friday night.
On the ensuing kickoff after quarterback Hunter Prince’s 57-yard touchdown run gave the Tomcats a late lead, the Patriots stripped Ashland of a seemingly secure victory with Druw Bowen’s 94-yard touchdown return and Clayton Anderson’s extra point.
One final Ashland turnover — its third of the night — sealed GW’s 27-26 victory.
Ashland (1-1) was led by Quinton Baker’s 178 rushing yards. He caught a touchdown pass from Prince, who also rushed for two scores and 74 yards. Jake Long chipped in 66 rushing yards and a TD as the Tomcats outrushed GW 330 yards to 99.
That wasn’t enough to overcome the final sequence — the execution of which wasn’t exactly what Tomcats coach Tony Love had in mind.
Leading 26-20 with 46 seconds to play, Ashland didn’t want to kick the ball in the air to allow GW to set up a return.
However, Bowen fielded the ball cleanly from the sky on his own 6-yard line and ran through traffic to paydirt.
“The kid caught the ball and hit it deep, and that’s not what we really wanted, but it was what it was,” Love said. “We still had bodies around him, and the coverage team needs to make those tackles. That’s what they’re out there for, they’re good open-field-tackle kids, they’re fast, and they gotta get it done.”
GW coach Steve Edwards Jr. said his team’s preparation for the big kickoff return was rooted in having “no panic,” jokingly adding, “though I am inside, I’m not gonna lie to you.
“What we talk about daily is, each man do their job and do it a little bit better and believe in each other, try to get something done,” Edwards said, “and they did.”
Bowen’s return came in the wake of Prince’s TD run down the sideline, which came after a fake handoff from the shotgun set.
“We were hoping the defense was gonna flow with the running back,” Love said, “and it just kinda popped open.”
Another area of special teams where Ashland has struggled this season is placekicking. The Tomcats tried only one placement Friday night, after their first touchdown, and Hunter Gullett’s point-after was blocked.
The Tomcats went for two after their last three TDs and only converted once. Prince’s two-point pass fell incomplete after his scoring run in the final minute, leaving GW an opportunity to win on Anderson’s kick.
“It makes you a little bit gun-shy about kicking,” Love said of the early failed extra-point try. “You start looking at your snap, and we spent a lot of time on that this week, but it was one of those things to where you want to try to put the kids in the best situation to win the ball game that you can and what you believe in, and nothing against anyone, but (going for two) is what we felt like we needed to do in order to win the ball game.”
The Patriots (1-1) couldn’t match Ashland’s rushers in the box score, but they got 65 big yards from Anderson — all in the second half — after struggling to hold onto the ball in the first half and seeing Nu Nu Miller, who had established strength in the rushing game, carried off in the second half due to injury.
“It was huge for us,” Edwards said of Anderson’s performance. “I went to him at halftime. He (overthrew) a nice, wide-open touchdown pass down here (late in the first half), and he was feeling a little bit down, but I just told him, ‘You just gotta forget about those things and just come out and play. You’re gonna make big plays.’ And he did.”
Ashland and GW both had their fair share of missed opportunities in the first half. Each put the ball on the floor four times and lost two of them, and the Tomcats committed a turnover on downs at the Patriots’ 11-yard line when Prince was stood up for no gain on fourth-and-1.
The Tomcats did move the ball in the first quarter. Baker carried seven times for 79 yards in the first frame and caught Prince’s 11-yard touchdown toss on play-action on the final play of the quarter.
Ashland then had zero first downs in the second quarter, fumbled twice, lost one, and punted three times.
Love did see some progress from Ashland in its second game of the year — mentioning specifically improvement on the offensive line and in run-stopping.
“I felt like we did improve in several areas as a team,” Love said, “but there’s a lot more room for improvement sitting in front of us.”
ASHLAND 6 0 14 6 — 26
G. WASH. 0 13 0 14 — 27
A – Quinton Baker 11 pass from Hunter Prince (kick failed), :00
GW – Druw Bowen 30 pass from Kaleb Mackey (kick failed), 2:58
GW – Nu Nu Miller 3 pass from Mackey (Clayton Anderson kick), :00
A – Prince 19 run (Jake Long run), 9:27
A – Long 1 run (run failed), 3:20
GW – Anderson 1 run (Anderson kick), 7:49
A – Prince 57 run (pass failed), :46
GW – Bowen 94 kickoff return (Anderson kick), :28
First Downs 16 16
Rushes-Yards 47-330 30-99
Comp-Att-Int 5-12-1 14-26-0
Passing Yards 69 195
Fumbles-Lost 4-2 4-2
Punts-Average 5-30.4 5-39.8
Penalties-Yards 6-36 5-25
Ashland rushing: Baker 21-178, Prince 9-74, Long 7-66, Sutton 7-23, Team 3-(-11).
George Washington rushing: Anderson 11-65, Bowen 6-19, Miller 6-18, Blake 2-(-1), Mackey 5-(-2).
Ashland passing: Prince 5 of 12 for 69 yards.
George Washington passing: Mackey 14 of 25 for 195 yards, Anderson 0 of 1 for 0 yards.
Ashland receiving: Woods 3-46, Long 1-12, Baker 1-11.
George Washington receiving: Bowen 6-107, Brooks 6-71, Grishaber 1-14, Miller 1-3.