FERRUM — Averett junior quarterback Bryce Jackson threw a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes to nearly lead the Cougars to an improbable rally against Ferrum, but in the end, the Panthers won out, holding off the late rally for a 31-24 win in the season opener for both teams Saturday night.
Averett (0-1) found itself in a 21-point hole after Seth Deaton’s 26-yard field goal gave Ferrum a 31-10 lead with just under 12 minutes left in the game. While it would’ve been easy for the Cougars to throw in the towel, they did the opposite, stringing together a 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive capped by Jackson’s 17-yard touchdown toss to senior Isaiah Grice that pulled Averett within two scores at 31-17 with 8:36 left in the game.
Ferrum (1-0) stalled on its following drive and was forced to punt. The Cougars took over on their own 14-yard-line but didn’t flinch in the face of adversity. Facing a third-and-7, Jackson dropped back and found sophomore Nick Andrews for an 11-yard reception that kept the drive alive. Five plays later, the duo hooked up again as Jackson found Andrews for a 6-yard touchdown that made it a 31-24 game with just over a minute remaining.
The Cougars turned to their special teams next, but the Panthers jumped on the onside kick and held on there for the win.
Ferrum senior quarterback Titus Jones was a thorn in Averett’s side all evening as the former Reidsville, North Carolina, standout threw for a trio of passing scores in the opening three quarters. Jones got the Panthers started on the right foot, capping their 11-play, 65-yard opening drive with a 7-yard strike to sophomore Tmahdae Penn that made it a 7-0 game with 8:31 left in the opening quarter.
Two possessions later, Jones struck again, this time finding senior Christian Caldwell for a 15-yard touchdown pass that helped the Panthers double down on their lead at 14-0 at the start of the second quarter. Jones found Penn for an 18-yard reception that pushed the Panthers’ advantage to 21-10.
Like the famous Beatles song, Jones got a little help from his friends as Ferrum’s defense forced four turnovers in the opening three quarters — including senior Devin Hansen’s 90-yard interception return for a score that made it a 28-10 contest at the start of the third and killed a promising Averett drive.
The Cougars experienced a bit of misfortune in the second quarter as a fumble halted a 10-play, 46-yard march near the end of the first half.
Former George Washington standout Shawn Watlington broke loose for a 7-yard rushing score around the right side that accounted for his first collegiate score and cut Averett’s deficit to 14-7 with 12:02 left in the half.
Averett’s defense forced Ferrum into a big three-and-out on its ensuing possession and junior kicker Will Caviness repaid his guys’ efforts with a 38-yard field goal that trimmed the Cougars’ deficit to four, 14-10, with just over six minutes left in the third quarter.
Ferrum scored 17 unanswered points to start the second half and pulled away from Averett. Jones 18-yard pass to Penn made it an 11-point game and Hansen’s 90-yard pick-6 gave the Panthers an 18-point cushion. Deaton finished off the tear with his 26-yard field goal that gave Ferrum a 31-10 advantage with 11:47 left in the game.
Jones threw for 239 yards and three touchdowns, while rushing for another 57. Penn led all receivers with a game-high 131 yards and two scores on nine catches.
Senior Ja’Kari William led the Panthers with nine tackles (nine solo), while senior Billy Higgins and sophomore Avion Smith each finished with eight.
Jackson finished the evening with a game-high 322 passing yards and two scores on 31 completions. Senior Jarrod Mosby recorded 70 receiving yards on seven catches, while Grice finished with 64 yards and a score on six catches. Andrews hauled in a score for Averett.
Watlington led the Cougars’ running attack, finishing with 48 yards and a score.
Senior JaVon Lofton recorded a team-high eight tackles for Averett, while senior Tristin Quick, Carey Dickerson and graduate student Conner Showalter finished with five.
Averett returns to the field Saturday when it opens its home slate against non-conference opponent Christopher Newport at 6 p.m. Postgame fireworks will follow.