Lenoir-Rhyne wins playoff opener
A rematch is on the horizon.
Lenoir-Rhyne, playing its first playoff game at the NCAA Division II level in school history, set up a second showdown with South Atlantic Conference foe Carson-Newman by turning away Fort Valley State 21-6 Saturday in the opening round of the playoffs at Moretz Stadium in Hickory.
The Bears, seeded third in the Super Region 2 and making their first overall playoff appearance in 50 years, will head to Jefferson City, Tenn., next week to face second-seeded Carson-Newman at noon in Burke-Tarr Stadium. The teams played Sept. 15 in Jefferson City, with the Eagles claiming a 47-23 victory. L-R (9-2) has not lost since, reeling off eight straight wins – six of them in SAC play to win the league title over Carson-Newman.
Sophomore fullback Isaiah Whitaker bulled his way to 117 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries to help the Bears to the playoff win over sixth-seeded Fort Valley State (8-4).
Junior defensive back Michael Green also found the end zone, carrying an interception back 100 yards for a touchdown that gave the Bears a 21-0 lead after three quarters.
L-R’s defense kept the Wildcats out of the end zone until Stephen Stroman hauled in a 11-yard TD pass from Antonio Henton with 9:57 to play.
The Bears opened the scoring in the first quarter after Fort Valley State missed on a 54-yard field-goal attempt on its opening drive and had to punt on its second. Taking over at the L-R, 43, the Bears needed one play – a 57-yard burst from Whitaker – to go up 7-0 following Zach Neumann’s extra point.
Lenoir-Rhyne maintained that advantage the rest of the first half before doubling it early in the third quarter.
Jarrod Spears returned the second-half kickoff 99 yards to the Fort Valley State 1, but an unsportsmanlike penalty against the Bears moved the ball back to the 16. Whitaker carried three times for a first down at the 6. After a loss on a run play by Reuben Haynes, two Whitaker totes moved the ball to the 1. On fourth-and-goal, Whitaker plowed in from a yard away to up the lead to 14-0.
The Wildcats moved down the field to the L-R 13 as time ticked off the third-quarter clock. That’s when Green stepped in front of a Henton pass and took it 100 yards for the score that upped the lead to 21-0 with three minutes left in the period.
Fort Valley State reached the L-R 3 on its next series only to give up the ball on downs.
After Thomas Wolfe picked off a Haynes pass to get the ball back for Fort Valley State, the Wildcats moved to the L-R 10. But Henton’s pass to Rashad Tukes fell incomplete on fourth down, giving the ball back to the Bears.
A 23-yard run on third down by Spears moved the ball to midfield, and from there L-R was able to run out the clock to secure the win.
Fort Valley State’s defense checked L-R’s ground game, limiting the Bears to 243 rushing yards, more than 140 less than their Division II-leading average.
Lenoir’s Rhyne’s defense, sparked by 12 tackles from Demetrius Green, had three sacks and allowed just 92 rushing yards.
Henton did throw for 242 yards, completing 25-of-42 passes for the Wildcats.
In Saturday’s other Super Region 2 game, No. 4 seed West Alabama routed fifth-seeded Miles 41-7 and will meet top-seeded Valdosta State Saturday at noon.