An electric crowd was fired up at Moretz Stadium on Saturday for something Lenoir-Rhyne hadn’t done since 1962 — make a run at an NCAA Div. II National Championship.
The Bears (9-2) kept their ground game going, as they have done all season, tallying 243 rushing yards en route to a 21-6 opening round playoff win over Fort Valley State University (Ga.).
“Hats off to Fort Valley State” said L-R head coach Mike Houston. “I am just so proud of our guys and how they played. I am proud of our coaches and happy for this school.”
Running back Isaiah Whitaker churned 119 rushing yards on 25 carries for Lenoir-Rhyne, which had averaged 384.7 rushing yards a game this season.
The Bears’ defense also allowed only 92 yards on the ground.
Whitaker put the Bears up 7-0 with a 57-yard scoring run at the 8:14 mark of the opening quarter.
The first half was filled miscues by both teams in the kicking game.
Fort Valley State kicker Justin Rosenbaum tried to put the Wildcats (8-4) on the board, but his 54-yard field goal attempt was partially blocked by the Bears’ special teams unit.
L-R’s Justin Powell, an East Burke product, also had an opportunity to extend the Bears lead with a field goal, but his kick sailed left, keeping the score at 7-0.
Rosenbaum would have another chance to redeem himself, but he missed another kick from 30 yards out to keep the score the same with 2:38 left in the half.
Powell had a chance to put his team up 10 points before the halftime break, but his 32-yarder was wide left. L-R led 7-0 at the half.
Lenoir-Rhyne’s Jarrod Spears broke the game open in the second half, taking the opening kickoff 99 yards to the Wildcats’ one-yard line. However, Spears removed his helmet after the play, resulting in a penalty.
“I thought I had got in” Spears said of his kick return. “That’s why I took my helmet off.”
Despite the penalty, the Bears added to their lead on a one-yard touchdown run by Whitaker with 11:34 left in the third quarter.
“We all make each other better” Whitaker said. “We feed off each other’s success, and we want each of us to do well.”
Defense helped put L-R up three touchdowns when defensive back Michael Green returned an interception of Fort Valley quarterback Antonio Henton 100 yards for a touchdown.
The Wildcats scored their only touchdown and the final score of the game with 9:57 left when Henton found receiver Stephen Stroman on an 11-yard strike.
Lenoir-Rhyne advances to the second round of the playoffs, where it gets another shot at rival and SAC foe Carson-Newman.
The Eagles beat the Bears, 47-23, on Sept. 29 in both team’s conference opener.
When Haynes was asked if he and his teammates are looking forward to a rematch with the Eagles, his response was clear and to the point.
“Yes,” he said. “Our goal is a national championship.”