Deondre Lester

Lenoir-Rhyne's Deondre Lester (82) tries to escape the grasp of UVa-Wise's Mykael Anderson (18) during a return attempt in this file photo.

GREENEVILLE, Tenn. — Fresh off its best all-around performance of the season, the Lenoir-Rhyne football team visits Tusculum today in search of its 11th straight South Atlantic Conference win dating back to last season. The Bears routed UVa-Wise 63-6 on homecoming last Saturday, playing well on offense, defense and special teams.

“We played really clean and crisp and executed in all three phases,” L-R head coach Drew Cronic said. “And when you get those things going together, they feed off each other.”

The Bears (5-0, 3-0 SAC) scored early and often against the Cavaliers, tallying four touchdowns in the first 6 1/2 minutes to grab control. L-R finished with nine TDs in all, including four rushing scores, three passing TDs and two punt returns for scores.

Senior safety Kyle Dugger registered both of the Bears’ punt return TDs, taking one 68 yards at the 11:52 mark of the first quarter and 67 yards with 8:29 remaining in the opening period. He was subsequently named the National Special Teams Player of the Week, joining junior safety Eric Jackson who earned National Defensive Player of the Week honors the previous week.

Following his team’s dominant outing against UVa-Wise, L-R head coach Drew Cronic discussed today’s game against Tusculum during the Bears’ weekly Facebook Live show on Tuesday evening. Kickoff is slated for 1:30 p.m. from Greeneville, Tennessee.

“It’s a strange situation because going into the season, Tusculum was a team that I was thinking would be a sleeper in the conference,” said Cronic. “They had almost everyone back on defense, big offensive line coming back, running backs.

“… So far they’ve been a team that has struggled to kind of get out of their own way a little bit, made some mistakes,” he added of the Pioneers, who lost 30-20 at Newberry two weeks ago and 28-21 to 16th-ranked Wingate at home last Saturday. Tusculum outgained both teams, but committed over 100 yards in penalties each game while also losing three fumbles against Newberry.

“They’re a team that’s trying to figure out how to put it all together,” said Cronic. “And Jerry Odom, their head coach, is a guy that I have a lot of respect for. He’s a defensive guy, he does an outstanding job scheming, he does an outstanding job getting his kids to play hard.

“I expect them to come out and play their best game this Saturday,” he continued. “Because obviously that’s what we’re gonna get every week whenever we play someone, and I’m sure he’s (Odom) been harping on those things. They’re a team who if they will eliminate some mistakes, I think can play with anybody in our league.”

The Bears should be OK if they continue to execute as well as they did a week ago. One of 20 undefeated teams left in Division II, they have several players who rank at or near the top of the nation statistically.

The aforementioned Dugger leads DII with two punt returns for TDs, while redshirt junior quarterback Graryson Willingham ranks fifth in the nation in passing efficiency at 182.1. Additionally, senior defensive end Jaquan Artis ranks fourth in the nation with 2.2 tackles for loss per game.

L-R has also turned a negative into a positive, as injuries along the offensive line have allowed younger players to step up and create more depth. Cronic believes the offensive line played its best game of the season last week despite starting true freshman Blake Jefferson and redshirt freshman Logan Kesler at center and left guard, respectively.

Redshirt freshman Phillip Davis, the squad’s backup center, suffered what is believed to be an Achilles injury against UVa-Wise. However, sophomore offensive lineman Kurtis Feanny is expected to return soon after playing in nine games as a true freshman and the first two games this season.

“If we can continue to get guys back, continue to gain experience up front, that’ll certainly help us as we really enter the second half of the season where everything is gonna get kicked up a notch,” said Cronic. “The competition is gonna definitely be kicked up a notch, so hopefully our offensive line will continue to develop and create depth. But I’ve been excited about the way they’ve progressed and the job that Coach (Bob) Bodine (L-R’s offensive coordinator/offensive line coach) has done with them.”

On the other side, Tusculum (1-4, 1-2) nearly came back from a 14-0 deficit against a ranked Wingate team last week. Redshirt freshman quarterback Joaquin Collazo posted career highs in completions (13), completion percentage (56.5), passing yards (170) and passing TDs (3) against the Bulldogs, with sophomore wide receiver Tory Ponder catching six passes for 105 yards and two scores and senior running back Jordon Shippy adding 34 rushing yards and a 19-yard TD reception.

“We’ll have to play up at their place which is always tough, so we’ve got to prepare, be the best we can be,” said Cronic. “And once again don’t worry about who we’re playing, worry about us and worry about trying to put the best product we can on the field and I think we’ll continue to move forward. It’ll be all we can stand, it’ll be a great challenge for us, but our guys will be looking forward to it.”

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