Saturday afternoon’s game looked like it was going to be a breeze for the Lenoir-Rhyne football team. It turned out to be anything but.
After scoring the game’s first four touchdowns, the Bears allowed Carson-Newman to cut the deficit to a single score at the half. However, L-R responded with 21 unanswered points after halftime en route to a 49-21 win over its South Atlantic Conference foes in the second round of the NCAA Division II playoffs at Moretz Stadium.
“It’s great to win. What a wild game,” L-R head coach Drew Cronic said. “We started off hot and then we kind of had a rough second quarter, we turned the ball over some, and then in the second half I thought our kids responded really well and found ways to get it done. Our guys kept battling, kept battling, we hung in there. I just can’t tell you how proud I am of our football team.
“To go two years in a row not losing a single game against a conference opponent is amazing, and these kids have done it,” he continued. “… From a talent standpoint Carson-Newman is unbelievably talented, so it’s a blessing to be able to find a way to beat them twice this year and so I’m really proud of these guys.”
Following a three-and-out by the Eagles (9-3) on the game’s opening possession, Carson-Newman dropped back to punt. Preston Joseph didn’t allow the visitors’ punter to boot the ball away, though, as he blocked the punt which was recovered by Tre Luttrell and returned 10 yards for the first TD of the day.
“I just think our special teams coaches really put me personally and the rest of the special teams in good positions,” said Joseph, who added another blocked punt in the third quarter. “Throughout practice the whole week our coaches told us what they were gonna line up in, how they were gonna block certain things, and it panned out just the way they told us it would. So I’m just thankful for the opportunity to go out there and do what they said to do.”
L-R’s offense took over from there, scoring three TDs in less than seven minutes. After a 14-yard TD pass from Grayson Willingham to Drake Starks with 7:49 remaining in the first quarter, the duo hooked up again for an 11-yard scoring strike at the 3:19 mark. Ameen Stevens added his first of four rushing TDs on a 30-yard scamper just over two minutes later to make it 28-0 in favor of L-R (13-0).
Carson-Newman climbed back into the game on the strength of a big second quarter. The Eagles scored three times in the period, with two of their TDs coming off turnovers by the Bears. Derrick Evans capped an 11-play, 67-yard drive with a 1-yard TD burst for Carson-Newman’s initial score before his 16-yard TD pass to Braxton Westfield and Tyler Thackerson’s 12-yard scoring strike to Westfield brought the Eagles within seven at 28-21 heading into the intermission.
It was the Stevens show in the second half, as L-R’s 5-foot-9, 235-pound running back pounded the ball time and time again. The sophomore scored from 10 yards out midway through the third quarter before adding TD runs of 1 and 23 yards in the final period.
“Offensive line, man, those guys are wonderful,” said Stevens. “If I could afford it I’d probably take them all out for a steak dinner, it was just all them. They opened up holes, all I had to do was run the ball. Coach put in a good plan, we executed … I seen a hole, I hit it and Grayson took care of me.”
All told, Stevens had 20 carries for 128 yards and four scores. Willingham completed 11 of 17 passes for 104 yards and the two TDs to Starks, who finished with three catches for 47 yards.
Defensively, Jaquan Artis led the Bears with eight tackles (7 solo), 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble, while Quentin Hayes (7 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and J.P Palmer (5 tackles) forced fumbles for L-R, which recovered four in the contest. The Bears’ Clayton Horn (6 tackles), Malik Taylor (3 tackles), Donte Young (1 tackle) and Ivan Milliken each recovered a fumble.
Carson-Newman also had four takeaways, including an interception and a fumble recovery by Damarkus Jones (8 tackles) and fumble recoveries by Montel Presley (5 tackles) and Antonio Henderson (5 tackles, 1 sack).
Offensively, the Eagles’ Westfield became the first Carson-Newman player in 50 years to catch 10 passes in a game, amassing 139 yards and two scores. Evans and Thackerson split time at quarterback and combined to complete 17 of 29 passes for 200 yards and two TDs, while Antonio Wimbush completed his stellar college career with 12 carries for 91 yards to surpass the 4,000-yard mark as an Eagle.
“Those are just unbelievable plays these kids are making,” said Cronic of his team’s performance. “You look at the talent that Carson-Newman had and we probably didn’t win the warmup, but we won the game twice and that’s what our kids have been doing. I’m really proud of them.”
Following West Florida’s 38-35 upset of top-seeded Valdosta State, the Bears will host the Argonauts (10-2) in the national quarterfinals next Saturday. L-R has won 15 straight home games since Cronic took over last season, the longest home winning streak in the 100-year history of the school’s football program.
“We have the best fans. At the small-college level, this is the best atmosphere you can play in and so our kids feed off of that,” said Cronic. “It’s so much fun to play between the bricks and we’ve done fine on the road too, but to be undefeated at home obviously is quite a deal.
“I hope we can continue that trend because it’s getting to that time of year where if you can get hot and you continue to play well and all that, you never know what can happen,” he added. “It’ll be fun to play at home and West Florida will be really, really good. … It’ll be a great challenge for us playing them, and it’ll be a lot of fun.”