Catamounts’ losing streak reaches seven after loss to Wofford

WCU will finish its regular season next week against North Carolina in Chapel Hill

Western Carolina defenders tackle Wofford running back Lennox McAfee during Saturday's game. (Rick Sammons / For the North State Journal)

CULLOWHEE — It’s been a season of contrasts for the Western Carolina football team.

The Catamounts began 2018 with three straight wins for their best start since 1976. But just when it looked as though they were ready to build on last year’s seven-win season and make a push for an FCS playoff berth, they suddenly forgot how to win.

Saturday’s 38-23 Senior Day setback to Southern Conference rival Wofford at E.J. Whitmire Stadium was WCU’s seventh in a row, its longest skid since dropping 10 straight in 2011.

And things don’t promise to get better soon with a trip to Chapel Hill against victory-starved FBS opponent North Carolina coming up in next week’s season finale.

“This team knows we can be good,” a frustrated coach Mark Speir said afterward. “We can play with anybody. We’ve just got to learn to make the plays. That’s part of growing up. If we didn’t learn anything in these last three hours, we’re wasting our time.

“This is something that’s going to propel us into next year, learning to make those plays.”

It’s not as if the Catamounts (3-7, 1-6) have been playing that badly. Among the losses in their current streak are a three-overtime heartbreaker against East Tennessee State and a six-point defeat at the hands of Furman.

They battled until the bitter end against the 14th-ranked Terriers on Saturday as well, jumping out to a 20-7 lead late in the first half on the passing and running of quarterback Tyrie Adams.

A 6-foot-2, 185-pound junior, Adams became just the fourth opposing player in the last 62 games to rush for more than 100 yards against a Wofford defense ranked second in the SoCon and 13th nationally.

“They’re hard to run against,” Speir said of the Terriers. “Ty is a tremendous player and we’re glad he’s on our team. He may not win (SoCon Player of the Year). Sometimes the best player doesn’t win because he’s not on a winning team. But if you ask any coach in this league if they had to pick one guy to be on their team, I think it would be Tyre Adams.”

He finished with 167 yards and a touchdown on the ground while going 23 of 36 for 229 yards through the air Saturday.

“I wasn’t really thinking about how many yards I had or how many completions I had,” Adams said. “I was just trying to do what I needed to do to keep drives alive and put points on the board.”

Wofford (7-3, 6-2) changed the momentum just before halftime on a 32-yard pass from Joe Newman to Jason Hill. It then took its first lead with a touchdown on the opening drive of the second half and maintained it the rest of the way. WCU was only able to manage a single field goal by Will Horton in the second half.

And yet, it was still in a position to force overtime when it got a badly needed stop and forced the Terriers to punt with 2:46 remaining. The punt, however, was downed at the 2-yard line, forcing the Catamounts to go nearly the entire length of the field to keep their hopes alive.

Aided by a pass interference penalty and two long scrambles, Adams drove his team all the way to the Wofford 26. But on a second-and-5 play with just over a minute remaining, an apparent miscommunication between Adams and receiver Jordan Mathis led to a clinching interception and 66-yard return by the Terriers’ George Gbesee.

“Jordan ran his route like he was supposed to,” Adams said. “I should have thrown it right when I saw him, but I was getting ready to scramble, so I didn’t have the room to throw yet. I signaled for him to go deep, then I thought I could get it to him and get out of bounds. I released it and (Gbesee) made a great play and got the interception.”

Wofford scored a touchdown three plays later to produce a final margin look more dominant than it actually was.

“Earlier in the year when we had leads in the second half, we played not to lose,” Speir said. “For 60 minutes those guys played to win today. As long as they do that, I’m very encouraged.”