Led by red-shirt sophomore running back Malik Pierre, who ran for 115 yards and three touchdowns, the No. 10 ranked and second-seeded Pioneers took care of business against seventh-seeded Winston-Salem State University, 48-41, in the first round of the NCAA Division II tournament on Saturday, Nov. 19, at Bethpage Federal Credit Union Stadium in Brookville, N.Y.
“He [Pierre] is an all-around great player,” Head Coach Bryan Collins said. “He has a real nose for the end zone. We can get him the ball as a running back or as a slot receiver to work the matchups. He’s a weapon for us.” With the win, the Pioneers improved to a perfect 12-0 on the season and won an NCAA tournament game for the first time since 2005. The win also solidifies the most in program history in a single season.
After a deadlock at 14 after 15 minutes, the Pioneer offense exploded for 20 unanswered points to take a 34-14 lead and crush the mojo of the Rams from Winston-Salem State. In that span, Pierre ran for two of his three touchdowns and senior quarterback Jeff Kidd tossed a 34-yard bomb to junior receiver James Higgins who crossed the goal line to put a cap on the half for the Pioneers. At the break, the Pioneers led 34-17.
The third quarter was again dominated by the Pioneers, as they added two more touchdowns; an 11-yard pass from Kidd to senior halfback David White and Pierre’s third on the ground. By the time Pierre made his third trip to the end zone, the Pioneers had a seemingly safe 48-24 lead with 1:08 left in the third quarter.
In that 16 plus minute span, the Rams made the Pioneers sweat as they scored 17 unanswered points and drew to 48-41, but could not climb out of the hole the Pioneers put them in. Although their defense was not as dominant like they were against Assumption College a week prior, they made big plays that changed the game and held on just enough to earn the win. They bent, but did not break.
Perhaps the most important play of the game occurred on the last possession as the Pioneers moved the chains on a huge third down and seven to go thanks to red-shirt receiver Shane Hubbard. Kidd and Hubbard connected for 31 yards and rushes by the Pierre-White combination put the game on ice.
For the game, Kidd went 25-34 through the air for 320 yards and four touchdowns. Kidd spread the ball around as well, connecting with seven receivers. Kidd’s most frequent recipient, Hubbard, hauled in six catches for 81 yards and a touchdown while Kyle Ward brought in five balls for 72 yards and a score as well. On the ground, Pierre’s three touchdowns stole the show, but White ran for 134 yards on just 20 carries; adding to his terrific season.
Defensively, red-shirt junior defensive back Jared Chester and junior defensive back Richard Wright each made seven tackles to lead the Green and Gold and they each also intercepted a pass. Senior linebacker Ryan Renfroe also contributed, totaling four tackles including a tackle for loss while fellow senior linebacker Nate Feliz added six tackles and a pass break-up of his own.
As a team, the Pioneers amassed 12 more first downs than the Rams, outgained them in rushing and passing yards and also forced more turnovers. In addition to those numbers, the Pioneers also held a 10 minute advantage in time of possession and went an impressive 5-5 on fourth downs.
The Pioneers, led Collins, advanced in the tournament and will play host in their second round matchup to third-seeded Shepherd University on Saturday, Nov. 26, in Brookville, N.Y. Shepherd University, like the Pioneers, have a perfect record at 11-0 and have a potent offense; hanging 70 points a month ago against West Virginia State. They defeated Assumption College, a team the Pioneers handled twice this season, 48-31.
Game-time has yet to be determined.