WINGATE — Dom Samson was laying on his back on the grass of Irwin Belk Stadium as his final pass attempt was sailing through the air, but JoJo Spann couldn’t have asked for a better throw from his quarterback who he has built a relationship with this season.
“I didn’t see it, I got cracked. I was laying on the ground,” Samson said. “I talked to JoJo after the game and we both said it doesn’t come down to that if we are executing.”
With less than five seconds to go in the game, Samson aired out a pass to Spann running down the right-hash mark and the ball sailed to the goal line as the senior receiver was crossing it, but the arm of Wingate defensive back Matthew Ellis-White ended the Braves bid at a miraculous finish batting the pass down, as the Bulldogs stayed undefeated with a 31-28 win on Saturday.
“It honestly looked great. I should have caught it. I thought it was going to be a little under and it’s my fault. That was on me,” Spann said. “He (Ellis-White) had a good angle on it, but knowing how I am I should’ve had it.”
Samson in his sixth game at quarterback for UNCP (1-5) came into Saturday with multiple interceptions in his last three outings, but showed signs of turning the corner against Wingate (5-0), going 19-for-30 with 272 yards and four touchdowns. He had one interception, and came a deflected pass away from directing the Braves on a game-winning drive.
“I’m starting to feel a lot more comfortable honestly. The offensive line did a good job and my receivers did a good job and that makes my job a lot easier,” Samson said. “I thought it was something to build off of going to the second half of this season.”
UNCP coach Shane Richardson said this was a forward in the career of Samson as a leader and passer for the offense.
“With young guys, you are waiting for it to click, waiting for it to continue to try and get over the hump,” he said. “I think that is what we are starting to see tonight.”
On the final drive, Samson accounted for 43 yards on the 45-yard drive that the Braves covered in 1:31 of time off the game clock, including two passes to E.J. Williams and Quay Threatt of over 15 yards each. Having completed drives like that in high school, Samson could only compare the drive to something that you dream of growing up.
“We were just going to get down there as close as we could and kick a field goal to tie the game or go down there and score a touchdown and win the game,” he said. “It’s obviously what you do in the back yard growing up. You dream about scoring at the end of the game.”
In the second half, the Braves fought from behind twice to take the lead over Wingate. A touchdown toss from Samson to Williams midway through the third quarter gave UNCP the 21-17 lead, its first lead since its win at Elizabeth City State. The Bulldogs answered in the closing minute of the third to go up 24-21 on a 26-yard pass from James Whitaker to Jake Jensen.
Spann and Samson connected for a 42-yard touchdown with a little more than four minutes left in the game to go back up 28-24. Wingate responded on three minutes later to take the lead for good as Jay Hood hauled in a touchdown pass from Whitaker dragging his toe in the end zone with 1:34 left.
Special teams was the story of the first half with the Braves and Bulldogs having costly errors in the punt games.
UNCP had two special teams blunders on the first two punts, but the defense helped out the errors by only allowing one touchdown from the miscues.. The snap on the first punt sailed over the head of punter Isaac Parks where he jumped on the ball at the UNCP 14-yard line to set up the first score of the. The second time out, Parks was leveled and his kick was blocked setting up another short field for the Bulldogs that couldn’t convert for a score.
“I told them after the game was over that there were still a lot of executional mistakes and blunders that we made. I would couple that and special forces (team) needs to make the difference in game,” Richardson said. “We can’t contribute to loss yardage or turnovers of the sort.”
Samson connected with Williams on a 12-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 14-all after a high snap on a punt from Wingate set up a short field for the Braves.
Later in the second quarter, Samson threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to Spann in the second quarter to cut the Wingate lead to 14-7. Spann had a game-high 144 yards receiving and said the pair has formed a deep-threat connection through work after practice.
“I can say that Dom has come a long way just as a player,” Spann said. “He put some balls on the money today. He’s coming along.”
Wingate jumped out to a 14-0 lead with a touchdown in the first quarter as James Whitaker hit Jay Hood on an eight-yard score after the fumbled snap on the punt. Lawrence Pittman scored with a two-yard run early in the second quarter.
Leading the way for Wingate was running back Lawrence Pittman with 165 yards on the ground, with 127 coming after halftime.
UNCP is on a bye week this week, and will travel to Concord on Oct. 21.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.