Heartbreak in Titletown: No. 22 Eagles drop instant classic to No. 17 Valdosta State 61-59

Heartbreak in Titletown: No. 22 Eagles drop instant classic to No. 17 Valdosta State 61-59

VIDEO: Highlights

VIDEO: Press Conference

VIDEO: Ken Sparks Interview

VIDEO: Derek Evans Interview

VIDEO: De'Andre Thomas Interview

VALDOSTA, Ga. – No. 22 Carson-Newman (9-3) was eliminated from the 2015 NCAA playoffs at the buzzer.  Valdosta State (9-3) scored 34 fourth quarter points to rally from an 18-point deficit and sent C-N packing on a Greg Dent 28-yard TD catch as time expired. 

The loss puts a damper on one of the best offensive performances in Carson-Newman football history.  De'Andre Thomas (Milledgeville, Ga.) finished his C-N career by becoming the first Eagle to ever throw for 400 yards in a game. Thomas finished 20-for-27 with 416 yards passing, besting Danny Sanders' previous mark of 380 yards set in 1978 against Lenoir-Rhyne. 

However, it wasn't just Thomas who was sensational offensively.  Wide receiver TraShaun Ward (Miami, Fla.) snagged eight passes for 214 yards and two scores.  The 214-yard day is the third best single-game receiving total by an Eagle and the first time a wideout has caught 200 yards worth of passes by a Sparks-coached team. 

The 120 combined points sets a new school record for most combined points in a Carson-Newman football game.  The teams also tallied a whopping 1,368 yards of total offense.  That figure tops the Carson-Newman record book and comes within spitting distance of the NCAA record of 1,531 yards set by Abilene Christian (810) and West Texas A&M (721) in 2008. 

Valdosta State advances to the second round of the NCAA playoffs and will play West Georgia Nov. 28 at noon. 

The loss is just the 11th for Carson-Newman in 251 games all-time under Sparks when the Eagles score at least 30 points.  Carson-Newman falls to 2-15 all-time in road NCAA Division II playoff games.

The Eagles held a 45-27 lead at the start of the fourth quarter following a Jamal Jones (Ooltewah, Tenn.) three-yard dive. 

"It was an interesting game with a lot of dimensions to it," Carson-Newman coach Ken Sparks said. "It's one of those games where you can check your emotions out and see if they stay in line of where you want to be as a person. Our kids responded very well to that. We're hurting and we're struggling, but it's a struggle that will teach us a whole lot."

However, that's when the fireworks started and Valdosta State started to make a run. 

The Blazers ground out a 13-play 72-yard drive in 2:49 and Cedric O'Neal, a first team All-GSC selection and the Blazers' all-time leading rusher, blasted over right guard to start the Blazers' rally. 

Following a C-N three-and-out and the Eagles' only punt of the day, the Blazers efficiently moved the ball inside the 20.  Blazer QB EJ Hilliard skittered his way for a run around the right side of the line and brought VSU within five points after a failed two-point conversion. 

Carson-Newman moved the ball up to the 41 on its next drive. Facing fourth and one, the Eagles elected to go for it with a quarterback sneak instead of punting.  Thomas was stonewalled a half yard shy of the marker and the Eagles turned it over on downs. 

A play later, O'Neal turned in one for the highlight reel.  The senior running back burst through a whole over the right guard.  Xavier McFadden (Rock Hill, S.C.) was square for a tackle, however, O'Neal vaulted over him without breaking stride and 25 yards later found the end zone to put VSU up 48-45 after a two-point conversion.

The Eagles wasted little time in responding, aided by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on VSU after the PAT and an offsides call on the kickoff, Carson-Newman started its drive on its own 46. 

Thomas took to the air, hooking up with Ward on a wheel route to the left sideline for 26 yards.  Three plays later, Thomas found Ward again on a ball lofted to the left pylon.  Ward made the over-the-shoulder grab to score from 24 yards away and put C-N up 52-48. 

Valdosta through another punch with a 28-yard O'Neal touchdown run. 

The Eagles got the ball back with 1:52 to play.  After Thomas was sacked on the first play of the drive, he played pitch-and-catch with Ward along the right sideline on a fly route. Ward hauled in the 47-yard catch and put C-N in business at the VSU 20. 

A play later, Montavious Taylor (Atlanta, Ga.) screamed up the gut from 20 yards out on a dive to put the Eagles in front 59-55. 

After facing a 3rd-and-6, VSU rattled off three straight first down plays to march the ball down to the Carson-Newman 28.  Hilliard found Dent on a crossing route at the 12, the first team All-GSC wide receiver slipped through a Jerry Miclisse (Homestead, Fla.) where he caught the ball, leapt at the five, was hit at the three by McFaddeen and landed with the nose of the football across the goal line to give the Blazers the lead and the win with no time left on the clock. 

Thomas was heroic through the air completing 20-of-27 passes to seven different receivers.  Aaron Seward (Charlotte, N.C.), Steven Isom (Alcoa, Tenn.) and Damian Baker (Columbus, Miss.) all had three catches.  Seward scored on a 45-yard catch and finished second on the team with 73 yards behind Ward's 214 yards.

Taylor led the Eagles on the ground with 109 yards on 16 carries and the late score.  Baker had 54 yards on 11 carries and a touchdown.  Antonio Wimbush (Waveland, Ga.) and Jones also each found the end zone. 

"There was an unbelievable individual effort and heart from the seniors," Sparks said. "I'm sorry to see it end today. These guys (on offense) executed unbelievably. It was fun watching these guys play today."

O'Neal led the Blazers with three rushing touchdowns and 129 yards on 19 carries. 

Dent's game-winner was one of two receiving touchdowns on the day for  the Blazers leading receiver.  Dent had 13 catches for 156 yards.  Anthony Ingram added 83 yards and a score on six catches. 

Miclisse and McFadden led the Eagles defense with 11 and 10 tackles, respectively.  Justin Long (Kingsport, Tenn.) had seven tackles, 1.5 sacks and 3.0 tackles for loss.

Kenny Murphy led the Blazers defense with eight tackles. 

As Carson-Newman's season comes to a close, the Eagles significantly altered the record books. Here's what changes on C-N's all-time lists. 

De'Andre Thomas finishes his career with 43 rushing touchdowns, good for fourth all-time and first among C-N quarterbacks.  His 2,592 yards rushing is 15th all-time.

Thomas finishes his career first in career completion percentage (56 percent) and his 4,751 yards passing are fourth all-time for C-N. 

The Eagles scored 56 rushing touchdowns this season, a school record. 

Damian Baker finished the season with 1,403 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns.  Those figures are both seventh in their respective categories for a single year. 

TraShaun Ward's 877 yards receiving are the second most by a Sparks-era wideout and the eighth most all-time.  His 45 receptions are the seventh most all-time and the most ever for a wide receiver in the Sparks era. 

For offseason news on Carson-Newman football, follow @cnfootball and @cnathletics on Twitter.  

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