BOILING SPRINGS - Lucas Beatty's career-high 320 yards passing sparked a season-best output by the Gardner-Webb offense, but Samford captured a 44-23 win on the shoulders of all-purpose back Fabian Truss.
Truss totaled 262 all-purpose yards and a school-record four touchdowns, including a 97-yard kickoff return with 9:27 left in the third quarter that sapped an enthusiastic crowd's energy after Gardner-Webb had trimmed the visitors' lead to 21-17 moments earlier.
The Runnin' Bulldogs (0-3) responded with another deep drive, and appeared to have cut the Samford (3-0) lead to 28-23 on a 17-yard touchdown pass from running back Juanne Blount to Hudson Smith - but an illegal formation penalty wiped out that score. A sack on the ensuing play pushed Gardner-Webb to the fringes of field goal range, and Trever Austin's 55-yard attempt was short.
Samford took over and, on third-and-1 from the Gardner-Webb 42, Truss darted right on an outside run and tight-roped the sideline for his fourth touchdown of the day - a back-breaking score with 3:26 left in the third quarter to put his Bulldogs in front 35-17.
Gardner-Webb had more in its tank offensively and, after each team traded a pair of series with no points, the Runnin' Bulldogs climbed on Beatty's back to cut the lead to a pair of touchdowns. Starting at his own 16, Beatty completed eight consecutive passes to get the drive going - missing his first of the series on a first-and-goal play from the three. Kenny Little bowled in on the next play, cutting Samford's lead to 35-23.
Disaster struck on the extra point attempt, as a bad snap led to an impromptu pass into the end zone from holder Bo Lindsey - which was picked off in the end zone and returned the distance by Alvin Hines II for a defensive two-point conversion and a 37-23 advantage for Samford with 6:55 left in the game.
After an unsuccessful onside kick attempt, Gardner-Webb's defense did its job in forcing a three-and-out.
Beatty hit Deonte Swinton on a 16-yard pass play to convert a key third-down, but facing first-and-10 at its own 33, Beatty's next pass was picked off by Tae Lewis - who returned the ball all the way to the GWU four before being forced out.
Samford capitalized fully two plays later, as Stanley Robinson punched in from the two for the final score of the game.
A penalty backed Gardner-Webb up on its next drive and Samford took over with 1:29 left and ran out the clock.
The Runnin' Bulldogs outgained Samford 224-109 in the second half, and 442-373 for the game - piling up a season-high 27 first downs as well.
Beatty finished 30-of-43 for 320 yards and an interception, hiting redshirt freshman Carlton Heard seven times for 107 yards and redshirt sophomore tight end Seth Cranfill nine times for 75 yards. Both catch and yardage totals for Heard and Cranfill were career highs. Kenny Cook added a career-best seven catches for 71 yards.
Kenny Little finished with 89 yards and a pair of scores on 23 carries, and Blount carried 12 times for 53 yards and a score - with the former high school option quarterback gaining much of his yardage out of the wildcat set. Blount's touchdown run from six yards away with 9:39 to play in the third quarter trimmed Samford's lead to 21-17.
Samford's Andy Summerlin was sharp early, and finished 23-of-33 for 238 yards, one touchdown and an interception. Summerlin's pick at midfield set up Blount's six-yard touchdown run, as Gianni Olivas stepped in front and returned the ball inside the Samford 25.
Truss, a preseason All-America return specialist, finished with 146 return yards on three attempts, carried 11 times on the ground for 84 yards and three scores - and caught three passes for 32 yards. The Birmingham, Ala., junior had touchdown runs of three and 11 yards in the first half to stake Samford to a 21-10 lead at the break.
Gardner-Webb's defense was led by Tanner Burch, who totaled a career-high 16 total tackles, a fumble recovery and a pass break up. Drew White added seven hits and Brian Wittenberger had six for the Runnin' Bulldogs.
Samford got 11 tackles each from Jaquiski Tartt and Darion Sutton and saw end Calvin Ruff collect five tackles and 1.5 sacks.
Gardner-Webb will be back on the road next week, traveling to face Pittsburgh at 3:30 pm at Heinz Field. Kickoff is set for 3:30 pm and will air on ESPN3. The Panthers upset No. 13 Virginia Tech on Saturday.
QUOTES FROM RON DICKERSON, JR.
"I went in there and told the offense that we were going to get back to who we were when I said I was going to take this job and we were going to run the ball. We were going to set the tone by being physical up front and that is what I wanted us to do. I thought we did a good job of it."
"In certain situations we've got to finish the drives and we canít take sacks when we are in situations to come back and have it third-and-five. Whether it is the O-Line's fault, running backs donít pick it up, or we donít get the routes down the field. It is a combination of things. We did a lot of positive things today."
"We wanted to know where we were as a football program, where we measure up to everybody else. I will tell you this, those guys havenít quit fighting. And that is about the only thing I can say we measure up to right now. We have fight. We have fight, the ball just hasnít bounced our way, but we are going to keep on working. I have a great group of guys in there and I want them to have success."