BARBOURVILLE, Ky. - Locked in a see-saw battle, a key special teams play proved to be the difference as visiting Bethel (Tenn.) escaped Burch/Nau Field with a 51-48 victory over Union on Saturday.
The loss drops the Bulldogs to 3-4 overall, while the Wildcats improve to 4-3.
Down 49-42 and facing fourth and 4 at the Bethel 10, Union lined up for a field goal but caught Bethel off guard as the Bulldogs faked the kick. Levi Wilson, who came into holder the ball for placekicker Alex Peebles, hit a wide open Dominique Jefferson in the end zone to make it a 49-48 game with 7:51 to play. But on the PAT, Bethel blocked the kick, and Jocquel Skinner scooped up the loose ball and sprinted 95 yards to the opposite goal line for two points, putting the Wildcats ahead 51-48.
Bethel appeared to be driving to eat up the clock on its next possession, but Travis Smith fumbled at the 50-yard line and Zach Eagler pounced on it, giving Union the ball with 5:50 play.
Union struggled to move the ball. Facing fourth and 5 at the Bethel 45, Leonard Dixon pounded the ball just past the 41 but came up inches short of the first down, turning the ball over on downs with 4:29 remaining.
With only one timeout, Union was unable to stop the clock as Bethel ate the clock up. The Wildcats moved the ball down to the Union 24 with 40 seconds left when Wil Masoud took a knee to secure the 51-48 Bethel win.
It's not surprising Union and Bethel tangled in such a wild affair. Two years ago, the teams combined to score 139 points and rack up over 1,500 yards in total offense as Union outran Bethel 84-55.
Bethel outgained Union 525-376 in total offense, but it was special teams that kept the Bulldogs in the game. Keondrick Daniels returned a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns to account for two of Union's five first-half scores. Daniels racked up 162 yards on four kickoff returns and 80 yards on two punt returns as he continually gave the Bulldogs good field position.
Neither team was ever out of contention as the lead never grew more than seven points.
Daniels opened the scoring with a 79-yard punt return to make it 7-0 with 4:28 to go in the first. This was the first punt return for a touchdown by a Bulldog since Chris Thomas returned a 77-yarder for a score against Belhaven (Miss.) on Nov. 15, 2008.
Bethel answered with a six-play, 60-yard scoring drive. Travis Smith capped the Wildcat possession with an 8-yard touchdown run to even the score at 7-7 with 2:36 remaining in the second.
The Bulldogs responded with a four-play, 67-yard scoring drive of their own to reclaim the lead. Looking at third and 4 at the Bethel 39, Kenny Hughes busted through the line and sprinted to the end zone to give Union a 14-7 lead with 13:32 left in the half. Once again, the lead was short-lived as Bethel moved the ball 50 yards in five plays and needed only 1:25 to do so. Smith scored his second touchdown of the game on a 4-yard run, tying the game at 14-14 with 12:07 on the clock.
On the ensuing kickoff, Daniels went back to work, returning it 83 yards for a touchdown. After the PAT, Union led 21-14 with 11:50 to go in the half.
Momentum appeared to be swinging Bethel's way as it scored the next two touchdowns. Wil Masoud hit Michael Newbern for an 8-yard scoring pass to tie the game before Jacob Fussell scored on a 1-yard plunge with 4:45 to go, giving Bethel its first lead at 28-21.
Union responded with a nice, sustained drive as it reeled off 12-yards to cover 67 yards. Cody Sapcut punctuated the drive with a 2-yard scoring run, to pull the Bulldogs even at 28-28 with 58 seconds remaining.
Special teams came into play again on the ensuing kickoff as Peebles kicked the ball high and short, catching Bethel off guard. Bert Brown recovered the kick, giving Union the ball on the Wildcat 38. Eight plays later, Mike Brinkley hit Jefferson for a 10-yard scoring pass with 13 seconds to go, putting Union up 35-28 at the half.
Normally, the Bulldogs dominated the third quarter, but not on this day.
Bethel regained the lead as B.A. Davis scored on a 1-yard plunges and Masoud tossed his second touchdown pass of the day to Cole Delano to give the Wildcats a 42-35 edge heading into the fourth.
With 12:31 left in the fourth, Hughes scored his second touchdown of the day on a 1-yard run as Union evened things at 42-all.
Starting its next drive in excellent field position, Bethel needed only six plays to cover 49 yards to retake the lead. Facing fourth and 1 at the Union 28, Smith took the pitch and swept outside and scampered 28 yards for the touchdown. After the PAT, the Wildcats lead 49-42 with 10:33 to play.
Set up by a 40-yard pass to Jefferson, Union had the ball first and 10 at the Wildcat 16. However, the drive stalled at the 10 when the field-goal unit came out. However, it was a rouse as Wilson hit Jefferson for a 10-yard scoring pass to make it a one-point game. Union looked to tie it with the PAT, but it was blocked and returned for two points, making the final 51-48 Bethel.
Both teams racked up at least 200 yards rushing. Bethel ran the ball 59 times for 254 yards. Smith led the way with 175 yards and three scores on 34 carries. Meanwhile, Union tallied 200 yards on 41 carries. Dixon rushed for 124 yards on 22 attempts for his first career 100-yard game. Hughes registered 76 yards and two touchdowns on nine attempts.
Passing-wise, Bethel threw for 271 yards with Masoud completing 16-of-33 passes for 250 yards and two scores. Union had 176 yards passing as Brinkley when 15-for-28 for 166 yards and a touchdown. Jefferson led the Bulldogs with seven catches for 78 yards and two touchdowns.
Defensively, Ryan Shipley led Union with 13 total tackles, while Darius Thomas had 11 to go with two pass breakups. Joey Dienye led Bethel with 12 total stops.
Union will hit the road next week as it returns to Mid-South Conference East play at Kentucky Christian. Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m.