Georgetown College asked for superior service out of its defense through the first month of the NAIA football season, with a shutout, a litany of turnovers and four impressive wins producing a No. 8 national ranking.
The bill came due Saturday afternoon at homecoming. With numerous key components of that shutdown unit nursing nicks from a physical contest, No. 13 Bethel (Tennessee) University pushed through early resistance with 24 unanswered points and a 24-14 Mid-South Conference triumph at Toyota Stadium.
“It's frustrating, because you look back and that's a game we could have won,” GC coach Chris Oliver said. “All credit to our opponent. They're a very talented team. I think they're a legitimate top-10 type of team this year. You watch the video and there are missed opportunities all over the place that make it more difficult to swallow.”
Unlike the Tigers' August and September opponents, Bethel (5-0 overall, 2-0 MSC) won the turnover battle. The Wildcats used three interceptions and a successful fake punt to win the field position battle and strike against the reliably bend-but-don't-break Tigers.
Joaquin Collazo and Taylor Yancey each had a touchdown pass for BU. Yancey, used primarily out of the aptly named Wildcat formation near the goal line, added a short scoring rush.
And GC's offense, averaging 35 points through four games but slowed to more of a crawl in recent weeks, enjoyed little success against quick, athletic Bethel after its opening drive.
Darius Neal capped that 12-play, 69-yard match with a 13-yard TD catch from Drew Hartz. Neal ended up with 82 all-purpose yards out of the Tigers' 194 on the afternoon.
Bethel beat Georgetown (4-1, 2-1) for the second straight year. Last year's fall-from-ahead 25-24 road loss ultimately cost the Tigers a playoff berth.
“We felt like we just left a lot of big-play opportunities out there,” Oliver said. “We've got to continue to keep getting better.”
Calen Warren, Brandon Moore and Devious Christmon picked off GC quarterbacks Hartz and Gehrig Slunaker, who were a combined 14-for-34 for 118 yards through the air. The Wildcats sacked Hartz four times.
There were signs that defense and special teams might be enough to save the Tigers' day.
Six of the Wildcats' first seven series came up empty. The exception: Quashawn Ford's 5-yard catch of Yancey's jump pass with 13:29 remaining in the first half. Bethel gambled and took three points off the board after GC roughed its kicker on a made field goal prior to that score.
“The first half there was a lot of give and take,” Oliver said. “We scored on a nice little drive. Our defense did a nice job. It looked like two evenly matched teams.”
Kyren Simpson blocked the extra point, and Rob Sheffield later swatted a field goal to keep the Tigers' lead at 7-6 midway through the third period.
“In the third quarter, they had a fake punt after a stop. Our defense gets put in a tough spot, and we come up and get it stopped and block a field goal,” Oliver said. “At that point there, if our offense could have gotten a few first downs, I think that would have gone a long way. We had a spot where we'd had our defense on the field a lot.”
GC missed two throws on an ensuing three-and-out, however, and Bethel took over near midfield for a go-ahead drive.
Collazo (19-for-33, 250 yards) connected with Darius Prather for 21 yards and JD Dixon for 13 to back the Tigers' defense against its goal line.
DJ White then forced a fumble, but it took a fortuitous bounce back into ball carrier Terrance Robert's hands. Collazo hit Avont Burrus over two Tiger defenders just shy of the goal line to set up Yancey's 1-yard sneak.
Collazo found Cobey Johnson with the two-point conversion pass for a 14-7 lead, Georgetown's first deficit of the season, with 8:38 remaining in the third.
“Defense played a lot of snaps right out of halftime, and field position really flipped (Bethel’s) way,” Oliver said. “I feel like that was a turning point. It's a team game, and we've got to play better team football, but certainly we need more production and consistency on the offensive side.”
GC's seventh consecutive punt set up Bethel's 9-play, 59-yard scoring drive before the end of the third quarter.
Zyan Bethel's pass breakup and another tackle for loss by White left the Wildcats with third-and-11 at the 12. The Tigers tipped Collazo's pass in the back of the end zone, but Dixon came down with it.
The Wildcats' secondary started its second-half hat trick with Warren's diving grab along the GC sideline at the 33. Aided by a pass interference flag, the resulting possession ended with a 22-yard field goal by Austin Abbott to make it a three-score game with 13:32 left.
“We did not do a great job offensively staying ahead of the chains, and that's a big part of what we want to do.” Oliver said.
A second chain-moving catch on the day by Scott County product Cade Mullins extended the Tigers' bid to launch a miracle comeback. Neal, Slunaker and Isaiah Cobb also converted third downs on the march, and Neal applied the 5-yard exclamation point.
GC still needed two stops and two scores in the final 9:13. The Tigers forced a punt and got a late interception from Hunter Cain, but Bethel sandwiched two more picks around that one to bolt the door.
Kal Oakes can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.