HICKORY – One of the few faults Drew Cronic found in his team’s win at North Greenville last week was a slow offensive start to the game. Lenoir-Rhyne corrected that in a big way Thursday afternoon.
The Bears scored touchdowns on six of their eight first-half possessions to cruise to a 59-27 win over Mars Hill in both team’s South Atlantic Conference opener at Moretz Stadium. Sophomore quarterback Grayson Willingham threw for four of those scores, collecting 154 passing yards as Lenoir-Rhyne (2-1) opened up a 42-7 lead by halftime.
“I had awesome passing protection,” Willingham said, dishing out praise for his offensive line. “I don’t think I got hit once honestly. Definitely give them some credit.”
In last week’s big win at North Greenville, the Bears were held scoreless until the second quarter. They went three and out on their first drive Thursday before the offense found its groove.
Willingham opened the game’s scoring with an 11-yard pass to Ryan Carter midway through the first quarter. Four minutes later, Jaquay Mitchell ran in from 8 yards to score. And on the next drive, Mitchell took a Willingham screen pass 16 yards to pay dirt for a 21-0 lead before the end of the period.
Mars Hill (0-3) earned a brief respite by forcing the Bears to punt early in the second quarter. The Lions scored their first points on the ensuing possession with Jaqueveon Watkins’ 32-yard scamper. But the Bears’ onslaught continued from there as the hosts responded with three quick strikes late in the period.
Xzavion Huff scored his third rushing touchdown of the year on a 1-yarder up the gut. Willingham tossed his third touchdown of the game barely a minute later, taking advantage of an 8-yard Mars Hill punt to find Drake Starks wide open on a play-action pass for 22 yards. Duane Bland then picked off Austin Brown on the Lions’ next possession, and this time Willingham went deep up the middle to T.J. Smith for 41 yards and a score.
“I feel like we’re in good shape,” Willingham said about the Bears’ offense. “When we just execute what we’re told to execute, good things happen. It’s definitely a snowball effect when we get going.”
“That first half was pretty good,” Bears coach Drew Cronic added. “And in the second half, we got to play a ton of kids.”
Chase Allbaugh split the uprights on a 37-yard field goal to push Lenoir-Rhyne’s lead to 45-7 a few minutes after halftime. And with the game well in hand, the Bears began clearing the bench. That provided opportunities for guys like true freshman Caine Crews, who gained all of his team-best 54 rushing yards in the second half. Dareke Young and Kenny Carter also added rushing touchdowns in the fourth after the Lions had closed the gap a bit.
“To be able to play that backup group for really almost half the game is just going to help you down the road,” Cronic said. “It helps team morale. Those kids get better. And we need depth.”
Malik Taylor led the Bears’ defensive efforts with nine tackles. Tre’Dorion Arnold made four stops, including a 10-yard sack. Quentin Hayes had a 20-yard return on a fumble forced by Ivan Milliken. And Isaiah Herring caught an interception on the last play of the game as Mars Hill called timeout with three seconds left to attempt a Hail Mary throw from midfield.
Though the Bears had to play early this week due to the threat of Hurricane Florence, they now have extra time to prepare for a crucial conference matchup next Saturday. Lenoir-Rhyne travels to defending league champion Wingate, who is undefeated through two games. The Bulldogs face Carson-Newman on Saturday to open SAC play.
Cronic believes that with another great performance under their belt, the Bears will be ready to face this latest challenge.
“I think we’re fairly healthy,” Cronic said. “I think we’re getting better. I think we’re getting more confident. And I think our players are really buying in to the way we’re doing things.”