(STATS) – Detrez Newsome has been at it for four years, giving Western Carolina an all-purpose weapon who’s an equal threat to take a handoff, kickoff or dump-off to the house.
He’s no longer a one-man show.
Sophomore quarterback Tyrie Adams has added another dimension to a Catamounts offense that’s humming heading into Chattanooga on Saturday night, the second stop in a three-game gauntlet to open its SoCon slate.
Newsome is the FCS leader in all-purpose yards (866) and rushing yards (557), but it’s the man handing him the ball who has made Western Carolina a threat to crack the upper echelon of a conference that sent four teams to last season’s playoffs.
Adams started from the get-go as a redshirt freshman in 2016 and had his moments during a solid debut season that was an unmitigated disaster for the Catamounts. But 2-9 seems like a long time ago in Cullowhee thanks to a 3-1 start that’s been spearheaded by Adams’ big step forward. He’s two-thirds of the way to last season’s touchdown total with 10, and among QBs who have thrown at least 100 passes, he leads the FCS at 10.09 yards per attempt.
Five of those scoring strikes have come from at least 39 yards out – already one more than last season, when Adams averaged 7.51 yards per attempt.
“Being able to add the deep ball from Tyrie has been big for our offense,” said senior wideout Terryon Robinson, who has scored on 42-, 59- and 67-yard passes from Adams. “Teams are treating us different this year. They can’t stack the box to worry just about Detrez. They have to worry about wide receivers, too.”
They also have to worry about Adams’ legs. He ran for a career-high 152 yards and a touchdown in last week’s 38-34 victory over then-No. 18 Samford, the program’s first victory over a Top 25 opponent since 2006. Win again Saturday and a Catamounts team that’s 28th in the voting this week will certainly crack the poll. Leave Wofford victorious the following week and Western Carolina may find itself in the top 15.
There’s no ranking next to Chattanooga these days, but the Mocs were 12th in the STATS FCS Top 25 when the season began. Their season was derailed when quarterback Alejandro Bennifield was suspended prior to the opener for the first four games due to academic issues, and a 1-3 start followed thanks to a killer early schedule that included Jacksonville State, a trip to LSU and a visit from surprising UT Martin.
Bennifield is eligible to return Saturday, though first-year coach Tom Arth was noncommittal early this week whether he or sophomore Nick Tiano would start.
“We’re very excited that Dro has been reinstated and available. We’re a much better team with him on our roster than him not being on our roster,” Arth said. “It’s a unique situation. We’ll have to evaluate the decision throughout the week and make a decision as we get into Friday.”
Tiano had struggled prior to throwing for four TDs last week in a 63-7 rout of VMI, the Mocs’ 10th win in their last 12 road games in the league. It hasn’t been nearly that easy away from home for Western Carolina, which is 4-14 on the road since coach Mark Speir arrived prior to the 2012 season.
“I know Chattanooga has really good players,” Speir said. “They have had a tough schedule. It takes an extra level of preparation to win on the road in this league, especially against top competition like this.”
The quarterbacks took a back seat in last year’s meeting in Cullowhee. Bennifield threw two TD passes and went 11 of 16 for 192 yards, but the Mocs ran wild by going for 323 yards and three TDs in a 38-25 win. Adams (13 of 23, 117 yards, 1 TD) struggled, but the Catamounts also had a lot of success rushing as Newsome carried 16 times for 277 yards – including 95- and 75-yard touchdowns.
The big day on the ground was hardly out of the ordinary for the Mocs in this series. Chattanooga has won eight straight over the Catamounts, averaging 317.7 rushing yards while totaling 21 TDs in the last six.
Despite trailing for nearly the entirety of five of those last six losses and needing to throw, Western Carolina totaled just 901 yards through the air with five touchdowns and 11 INTs.
There are good reasons why the Catamounts are 8 1/2-point underdogs in this one, but the growth of Adams gives them at least one reason to think this time will be different.