Written by Chris Pendleton
BUENA VISTA, Va.— On a day when the Southern Virginia University football team honored its six seniors—Thomas Canady, Tommy Davidson, Josh Hodges, Brett Kassel, Ryan McGinn and Byron Tillery—the Knights ended their 2011 season on a high note with a 27-24 home victory over first-year football program and fellow NAIA Independent-member Ave Maria University.
With Saturday's win, Southern Virginia closed out its year at 4-7 overall (2-7 NAIA), tying last year's team for the second-most wins in the program's nine-year history, while Ave Maria (0-9) finished its inaugural season still seeking the school's first football victory.
The Knights' defensive pass rush pressured Ave Maria all day long, knocking the Gyrenes' starting quarterback out of the game in the second period as Southern Virginia finished with a single-game program record 11 team sacks.
Freshman linebacker Matt Strickland (Manassas, Va.) recorded 4 sacks himself, which is an individual Southern Virginia football single-game record.
Sophomore linebacker Kody Winsor (West Richland, Wash.) recorded 3 sacks on the afternoon making him the Knights' single-season record holder with 7 total sacks on the year. Winsor also had a momentum-swinging, 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown—the Knights' first kickoff return for a touchdown since 2004 and only the second in program history—mid-way through the second quarter after Southern Virginia had fallen behind 10-0.
After receiving the opening kick, Ave Maria put together a 17-play, 70-yard touchdown drive that took nearly seven minutes off the clock as the Gyrenes took a 0-7 advantage over the Knights.
The Gyrenes added to their lead early in the second quarter connecting on a 27-yard field goal following a fumbled punt reception by the Knights giving Ave Maria the ball on the Southern Virginia 10-yard line.
Winsor fielded Ave Maria's ensuing kickoff on his own 10-yard line and broke free on the left side of the field going 90-yards for the Knights' first score making it 6-10 with just over nine minutes remaining in the half following a failed Southern Virginia two-point conversion attempt.
Winsors' returned kickoff fired up the crowd and swung momentum in the Knights' favor, as Southern Virginia would score again just before the half taking a 13-10 lead into the break. Beginning on the Ave Maria 45-yard line, sophomore quarterback Mitch Stevenson (Muskogee, Okla.) connected with junior receiver Dewayne Beamon (Eastern Wayne, N.C.) on the first play of the drive for a 41-yard strike down to the Gyrenes' 4-yard line. Sophomore running back Jerry Washington (Gloucester, Va.) punched the ball into the end zone on the Knights' next play completing a 2-play, 45-yard drive that took only 16 seconds.
Southern Virginia received the ball following a halftime ceremony honoring the Knights' six seniors, and scored three plays and 55 seconds later when Stevenson found Chris Harper (Lynchburg, Va.) uncovered up the right sideline for a 42-yard touchdown pass making it 20-10 with 14:09 left in the third quarter.
Stevenson finished with 138 yards on 10-of-20 passing, including his touchdown pass to Harper. The sophomore quarterback was also picked off twice on the afternoon, giving Stevenson 18 interceptions for the year—a Southern Virginia single-season high. Despite struggling with interceptions, Stevenson recorded the second-most single-season completions (182) and passing yards (2,106) in Southern Virginia football history during his sophomore campaign.
Ave Maria responded with its second touchdown of the day 3:38 later cutting Southern Virginia's lead to three points (20-17).
Southern Virginia scored its fourth and final touchdown of the game following a bobbled Ave Maria punt attempt that gave the Knights the ball on the Gyrenes' 39-yard line. Washington completed a 3-play, 39-yard Southern Virginia drive with his second rushing touchdown of the day, and 15th of the season, moving the freshman running back past Hayes Page for the Knights' single-season rushing touchdown record.
Neither team would score again until Ave Maria strung together a 6-play, 50-yard touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter making the score 27-24 with only 2:02 remaining in the game.
After cutting Southern Virginia's lead to three with just over two-minutes remaining, Ave Maria attempted its second onside kick of the day—the Gyrenes successfully completed an onside kick following their first score—but this time the Knights fell on the ball effectively ending the game.
With no timeouts remaining for the Gyrenes, Southern Virginia ran out the clock securing its fourth win of the season.
"It was a good win that tied last season for the second-most wins in program history," said third-year head coach DeLane Fitzgerald following Southern Virginia's final game of the season. "More importantly, we sent our seniors out the right way."
Senior linebacker Tommy Davidson (Paradise, Calif.) added another accolade to his decorated career on Saturday recording a team-high 13 tackles—7 solo and 6 assists—while breaking the Southern Virginia football single-season tackles record with 133 total tackles on the year. A 2010 NAIA All-Independent Second Team selection, Davidson also leads the Southern Virginia record books in total tackles (342), unassisted tackles (211), tackles for loss (45.0), yards from tackles for loss (199), quarterback sacks (10.5) and yards from sacks (95).