It’s time for Round 2.
When Lenoir-Rhyne hosts Carson-Newman today, it won’t just mark the second round of the NCAA Division II football playoffs. It will also represent the second meeting between the South Atlantic Conference foes this season, with both matchups happening in Hickory.
The Bears enter ranked sixth in the country and with a 12-0 record, while the 25th-ranked Eagles are 9-2 and have won five straight since L-R defeated them 36-23 on Oct. 19. The Bears carry a 14-game home winning streak into today’s tilt, which is tied for the longest such streak in program history and is also the longest active streak in Division II.
After also winning 12 straight games last season, the Bears have earned 12 consecutive victories to open a season for the first time ever. Second-year head coach Drew Cronic attributes their success this season to hard work and dedication.
“I’ve been here for almost two years and we basically came in and held the players accountable, showed them that we loved them — and worked the dog-snot out of them,” Cronic told the Winston-Salem Journal earlier this week.
“We lost our first game of last season with 12 seconds to go, and then we won 12 games in a row,” he added of 2018, “so a lot of things went right and we had some great success quickly.”
That success included last year’s second-round win over Wingate, another member of the SAC. In a game that has since been dubbed the “Miracle at Moretz,” the Bears won 21-17 on a double-reverse flea-flicker from Grayson Willingham to Riley McGee for a 32-yard touchdown with under a minute to play.
While L-R obviously hopes today’s game isn’t quite as dramatic, it does expect a dogfight. The Bears took a 16-0 lead in last month’s game against Carson-Newman and never looked back, although the Eagles were able to cut the deficit to six points before losing by two scores.
“We’ve seen them and they have seen us, obviously,” said Cronic. “We know each other pretty well, but there will be some tweaks here and there with each of us hoping to get an edge.”
In the previous meeting, L-R amassed 246 yards and three TDs on the ground. Sophomore running back Ameen Stevens led the Bears with 18 carries for 79 yards and two scores, while senior backfield mate Jaquay Mitchell added four carries for 72 yards. Redshirt junior quarterback Willingham ran for L-R’s other TD while completing 10 of 14 passes for 100 yards and a TD, but he was also picked off twice.
Nevertheless, Willingham has protected the ball well most of the year, throwing only eight interceptions including six games with no picks. The All-SAC performer has passed for 23 TDs and 1,859 yards while completing 59% of his passing attempts.
As for the Eagles, they were paced by senior quarterback Derrick Evans’ 183-yard, three-TD performance in the last game against the Bears. He totaled 139 yards and a TD through the air to go with 18 carries for 44 yards and a pair of rushing scores. Furthermore, senior running back Antonio Wimbush had 11 carries for 87 yards and sophomore wide receiver Braxton Westfield had nine receptions for 99 yards and a TD.
For the season, Wimbush has 138 carries for 1,045 yards and 11 TDs and Westfield has 541 yards and nine TDs on 26 catches. Meanwhile, Evans has missed the past three games due to injury, with junior Tyler Thackerson leading the Eagles to a 3-0 record in his absence. During that time, Thackerson has 26 completions for 397 yards and three TDs to go with 41 carries for 137 yards and three additional scores.
Like Carson-Newman, L-R has also dealt with injuries. One of the Bears’ most notable injuries is the one to senior safety Kyle Dugger, who hasn’t played since the last meeting with the Eagles.
“Kyle’s going to be drafted and we’ve obviously missed his production,” Cronic said, “but I like how the secondary has responded and have really picked up their game here late in the season.”
Overall, the Bears have the league’s best scoring defense at 15.7 points per game. They have allowed 279 total yards per game and possess the top rush defense in the SAC.
Conversely, Carson-Newman’s defense has allowed the second-fewest points per game in the SAC at 19.7. The Eagles have the league’s best pass defense and have given up 299 total yards per contest.
According to Cronic, this season has been challenging because of injuries like the one to Dugger and because the Bears have had a bullseye on them ever since being chosen to win the conference during the preseason.
“It’s been challenging because we are getting every team’s best shot and while we didn’t have many injuries last season we’ve had more of them this time around,” said Cronic.
Another challenge awaits today as L-R looks to continue its historic run, but Cronic hasn’t allowed his team to look past any opponent. Instead, he has preached the importance of being in the moment and taking things one game at a time.
“We’re just concentrating on Saturday’s game,” said Cronic, whose Bears defeated Miles College 36-7 in last week’s playoff opener. On the other side, the Eagles upset 11th-ranked Bowie State 17-9.
Only one team can move on, with kickoff set for 2 p.m. today at Moretz Stadium.