Quarterback Jimmy Urzua completed 21 of 41 passes for 403 yards with two touchdowns and one interception and Mars Hill beat the Cavaliers 21-14 win Saturday at Carl Smith Stadium.
Consensus All-American Craig Rucker hauled in 12 passes for 185 yards for the Lions. Rucker and five defensive holding calls against the Cavs that extended Mars Hill drives were the biggest thorns in the side of the UVa-Wise defense.
“Defense did some good things, but we couldn’t cover (Rucker). He’s a pretty good player. Of course, we knew that coming in,” said Cavs coach Dane Damron. “We’ve got to quit playing defense with our hands and quit holding. I think we had eight or nine defensive holding penalties.
“The truth of the matter is when they needed a big play they found (Rucker). He either caught it or we were holding him.”
UVa-Wise's offense struggled most of the game but particularly in the first half.
The Cavs (1-2, 0-1) reached the red zone four times and came away with only one touchdown. Their other trips inside the 20 ended in two fumbles and missed field goal.
“This week we just didn’t make plays when we needed to. We just weren’t sharp. We just got beat,” Damron said. “We’re just not very good on offense right now. We’ve got to get better.”
Neither offense stood out early in the game.
Mars Hill (2-1, 1-0) got on the scoreboard first when Urzua hit Javon Harbison for a 9-yard TD pass with 3:58 left to play in the opening quarter.
UVa-Wise responded with a game-tying 48-yard punt return by Demetrius Mann with 49 seconds left in the first.
Mann, also a defensive back, said Mars Hill’s passing game presented a challenge.
“They’ve got a really good passing game and we got some penalties. We’ve just got to clean that up and make some adjustments,” Mann said.
Mars Hill took a 14-7 lead before halftime when Ty Snelson took a screen pass and went 80 yards for a touchdown with 6:23 left in the second quarter.
VERMILLION’S LEG IS KEY
One of the Cavs’ biggest defensive weapons was the leg of freshman punter Drew Vermillion. The Gate City native punted seven times for an average of 44.9 yards that included a career-best 56-yarder.
“I was just able to get my leg into it. Got good rolls and always good snaps,” Vermillion said.
Mars Hill scored its final touchdown with 9:15 left in the third quarter, Urzua’s 1-yard plunge capping a 12-play, 86-yard drive for a 21-7 lead.
With 23 seconds remaining in the third, Damron replaced starting quarterback Tanner Bernard with Garrett Cropp. Cropp played the rest of the game and completed 9 of 21 passes for 101 yards with one interception. He scored the Cavs’ only offensive touchdown on a 6-yard run with 5:09 remaining.
Cropp also led a drive in the final 1:47 of the game that moved the ball from the UVa-Wise 24 to the Mars Hill 11. But the Cavs failed to convert on fourth-and-10 with two seconds left.
“He gave us a spark,” Damron said of Cropp. “We just weren’t operating at that position. We really haven’t the last 2½ games.”
UVa-Wise will shoot for its first SAC win Saturday on the road at Carson-Newman. Mars Hill will be at home against Lenoir-Rhyne.