VIDEO: Eric Cain postgame interview
JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – A slow start and four turnovers proved too much for No. 16 Carson-Newman (6-2, 4-1 South Atlantic Conference) as the Eagles rallied from a 25-point deficit only to fall 35-32 to No. 4 Lenoir-Rhyne (9-0, 6-0 SAC).
The win clinches the Bears a share of their fourth consecutive South Atlantic Conference championship. L-R can clinch the SAC crown outright with a win in its regular season finale against Catawba.
"We were playing slow to start with. I don't know what that's about, but we were playing slow," Carson-Newman head coach Ken Sparks said. "We just got too far behind to get caught up, but I'm sure proud of the guys. The second half was a whole different football team. We played the kind of football that we thought we were going to play from the very beginning, and really had a chance to – we needed to make a stop.
"We needed—when we got the ball back there within four—we needed to go score and I thought we were on our way to score, but that's all part of "what if." We can "what if" it to death, but the basic thing is they are a good football team and they beat us. So we learn from it and grow from it hopefully, and let's move on to the next one.
L-R popped out to a 28-3 advantage behind touchdowns from four different players. A handoff to Jarrod Spears out of the Maryland-I went for 48 yards for a score with 2:48 left in the first half. The Bears had generated 272 yards of offense in the first half; however, the Eagles swung momentum in their direction when William Alderman (Brooksville, Fla.) scooped up an Evin Sims fumble on the final play of the first half and returned it 78 yards for a score. Williams was aided by a Javaris Neal (Columbia, Tenn.) block at the five that prevented Victor Brannen from cutting Alderman off yards shy of the end zone.
The Eagles turned that play into heady play in the second half. After forcing the Bears off the field with a three and out to begin the stanza, the Eagles drove down the field in 75 plays for De'Andre Thomas (Milledgeville, Ga.) to punctuate the possession with a one-yard option keeper around the left guard.
Lenoir-Rhyne took the ensuing possession down to the Carson-Newman 42 before it was forced to punt. The Eagles responded with a 13-play, 92-yard drive that saw Damian Baker (Columbus, Miss.) find the end zone from eight yards out. That score capped a string of 21 unanswered points that brought the Eagles within four points of L-R.
Carson-Newman's defense forced the Bears off the field with another punt. The Eagles pushed the ball inside L-R's 40, looking to take the lead for the first time on the day. However, Andy Hibbett (Corryton, Tenn.) coughed up a fumble that the Bears' Lendre Sparrow pounced on.
The Bears took 4:18 off the clock and found the end zone to push the lead back to two scores when Sims took an option keeper in around the right side of the line.
The Eagles would punch the ball in to paydirt once more on a Thomas three-yard run, but couldn't recover the onside kick. L-R ran out the clock to end the game.
The loss takes control of Carson-Newman's playoff destiny out of the Eagles' hands. C-N was ranked seventh in the region and Lenoir-Rhyne second.
"That's where we hope that we have enough maturity and enough leadership that we cannot do what normal people would do in a situation like that," Sparks said. "We don't know, everybody could wipe us off and say that's the end of it for us, but I don't believe that. I've had too many situations even from the very first year we won the national championship. They said there wasn't any way, and there was about four teams got beat in front of us, and there was a way. So you know, we don't know. But if we don't play it won't matter. The next two ball games—that's the key for us."
Damian Baker led C-N with a career high 179 yards on 23 carries. Hibbett collected his seventh consecutive 100-yard game with 128 yards on 22 carries. With his performance, Hibbett surpassed the 3,000-yard mark for his career – the 10th Eagle running back to accomplish the feat all-time.
Hibbett also passed Tyron Douglas and Nate Inman on the all-time rushing list. He has ninth place on the list.
Lenoir-Rhyne was led by Chris Robinson and Jarrod Spears. Robinson had 178 yards on 20 carries. Spears toted the ball 13 times for 109 yards.
"Everybody says, you might as well hang it up because faith hasn't have anything to do with what you see," Sparks said. "It's got something to do with what you don't see. Same thing, if we go by what "they say, they say, they say," then we can forget about it, so we'd better go by what The Lord says. So that's still the same message that we've always had and always will have."
The Eagles head outside the state of Tennessee for a game for the first time in six weeks. Carson-Newman travels to Newberry for a 2 p.m. kick. Pregame coverage on the Eagle Sports Network starts at 1 with the Appalachian Cooperative Tailgate Show on Joy 620 (WRJZ-AM, Knoxville), Mountain Country 106.3 (WPFT-FM, Sevierville) and online at cneagles.com/live.