Eric Jackson

Lenoir-Rhyne's Eric Jackson (11) tackles Wingate's Domineke McNeill (3) during a run around the end in this file photo.

Last Saturday was a banner day for the Lenoir-Rhyne football team, as the seventh-ranked Bears defeated then 12th-ranked Wingate 20-13 in front of a program-record 10,046 fans and a national audience on ESPN3 and the WatchESPN App. The victory was the 19th straight regular-season win for the Bears and their 12th consecutive victory at Moretz Stadium. Not only that, but it was the 79th win for L-R since 2010, making this the winningest decade in program history.

“It was so much fun,” L-R head coach Drew Cronic said during the Bears’ weekly Facebook Live show on Tuesday evening. “The best word I can come up with is we’re blessed. It means so much to so many people and those kids come out on that field and they see 10,000 people in the stands, and just everybody’s into it and we have good football fans.

“They understand the game and for them to behind those kids like that, it’s unbelievable,” he added. “And I think it affected the game, I think it affected their (Wingate’s) ability to hear sometimes offensively. It just gave us a lot of energy and I know how much our kids enjoyed it.”

The Bears (9-0) step out of South Atlantic Conference play this week for a battle with UNC Pembroke, which has lost three straight games to fall to 3-6 on the season. The Braves are also 0-5 on the road this fall and have lost 14 consecutive road contests dating back to 2017.

But don’t be fooled by UNC Pembroke’s record, as its past three losses have been by a combined 16 points. After losing 48-38 at Wingate on Oct. 19, the Braves dropped a 23-20 decision at Tusculum on Oct. 26 before falling 37-34 in overtime last week at Newberry.

“When you look at their football team, they’re a dangerous football team,” said Cronic of UNC Pembroke. “And it’s just like anybody else in this league … you better come ready to go. They will get after us and we’ve got to play well.”

One player Cronic discussed was Braves sophomore quarterback Josh Jones, a Wilmington native who was also recruited by L-R. The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder has completed 181 of 295 passes (61.4 percent) for 1,776 yards and 13 touchdowns this year, and he is also UNC Pembroke’s second leading rusher with 66 carries for 284 yards and four scores.

“The quarterback is a really athletic kid,” said Cronic. “… He runs around, he’s a big, good-looking athlete.”

The Bears’ coach added that the Braves’ defense is also solid. Furthermore, he believes L-R’s 28-20 win two weeks ago at Limestone — which has also won just three games this season — reminded the Bears not to overlook any opponent.

“I think the Limestone game taught us a little bit and I think our kids understand there’s so much to play for,” said Cronic. “In front of our fans, I think they usually have a lot of energy and do pretty well, so I’m excited about that opportunity.”

L-R moved into the top spot in the NCAA Super Region 2 rankings earlier this week, which should give the Bears some added momentum. Plus, today is Senior Day, meaning it will mark the final time the seniors play in front of their home fans in the regular season.

“At this point in the season, it (the regional rankings) does become important, so that motivates me,” said Cronic. “… That’s a bye week (in the playoffs) and home field until the semifinals. That’s a critical thing and we don’t have total control over that obviously because other teams are playing, but we can go play to the best our ability and I think that’ll motivate our guys to be recognized like that.”

And while the Bears’ offense didn’t perform as well as it would have liked last week against Wingate, L-R still showed off its big-play ability. Redshirt junior quarterback Grayson Willingham hooked up with senior running back Jaquay Mitchell for TD passes of 41 and 90 yards, while sophomore running back Ameen Stevens finished with 10 carries for 88 yards including a 70-yard burst on the Bears’ first offensive play.

Conversely, L-R’s defense held the Bulldogs to 86 rushing yards and forced three turnovers. Senior linebacker Clayton Horn had an interception and a strip sack that he recovered, while sophomore defensive back Javoris Back also recorded a pick. Despite playing without senior safety Kyle Dugger, the Bears’ defense was dominant once again.

“Our defense played unbelievable,” said Cronic. “… Our defense stepped up time and time again, and we made enough plays offensively. I wasn’t pleased with everything we did offensively, there were some opportunities we missed.

“We know we’ve got to get better and when you play a team like that, you get exposed a little bit,” he continued. “Once you get into the playoffs, everybody’s gonna be like Wingate. Every team’s gonna be really good, and if we want to try to make a run then we’ve got to continue to improve.”

Today’s game against UNC Pembroke kicks off at 2 p.m. at Moretz Stadium.

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