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Lenoir-Rhyne football forces six turnovers to win first NCAA playoff game since 2013
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Lenoir-Rhyne football forces six turnovers to win first NCAA playoff game since 2013

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Lenoir-Rhyne was one of the best teams in the country this season at forcing turnovers. The Bears created even more havoc Saturday to extend their season another week.

The hosts forced six turnovers to defeat Florida Tech 43-21 in the opening round of the NCAA Division II playoffs at Moretz Stadium. With the result, the Bears (11-1) became the 30th Division II program to reach 500 all-time victories.

“This is a good win for us,” coach Drew Cronic said. “That was a quality opponent.”

The takeaways began on the first play when Florida Tech (8-4) mishandled the opening kickoff and Kyle Dugger recovered the fumble inside the 5. The Bears had their own nerves to deal with, however, settling for a Chase Allbaugh 28-yard field goal after a couple of penalties.

The Panthers responded right away with a flea-flicker that set Romell Guerrier loose for a 74-yard score and the visitors’ only lead of the game. But Grayson Willingham, who broke Lenoir-Rhyne’s single-season record for passing touchdowns last week, quickly led his troops back down the field. He threw the first of his three scores on a well-designed play where he rolled left before firing across to Drake Starks on the right, who grabbed the screen pass and coasted in from 13 yards.

Then the Bears’ defense overwhelmed Florida Tech.

Jaquan Artis and Dan Louba combined to sack Panthers quarterback Trent Chmelik on fourth down. Javoris Smith picked off an underthrown halfback pass on Florida Tech’s following possession, which Ameen Stevens converted into points with a 2-yard run. Sherrod Williams then made a nice grab on a Chmelik pass, and Willingham pushed the lead to 24-7 on a 31-yard toss up the left seam to Jaquay Mitchell.

“Like I say every week, our defense helps us out so much with field position and everything,” Willingham said. “It makes my job and the offense’s jobs easy.”

The Panthers’ final three drives of the half ended with two punts and another turnover on downs. Allbaugh added a 19-yard field goal for a 27-7 halftime advantage.

Both sides struggled through a frustrating third quarter. Eric Jackson intercepted Chmelik before Xzavion Huff lost a fumble near the goal line. Chmelik gave it right back on the next play when Artis recovered a fumble, though the Bears settled for an Allbaugh 40-yarder. Jackson then caught another interception, and Allbaugh’s fourth field goal made it 33-7.

“We knew that we were going to do well,” Jackson said. “We just had to come out and do what our coaches told us to do.”

Willingham completed a run of 37 straight points for the home team with his third touchdown, finding Ryan Carter on a post route late in the third. Derrick Wright ended that run by returning the ensuing kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown, and Chmelik’s 9-yard pass to Antwuan Haynes trimmed the Panthers’ deficit to 40-21 heading into the fourth.

“If you don’t turn the ball over six times, it’s probably a little bit different of a game,” Florida Tech coach Steve Englehart said.

But it was too little, too late for the Panthers, who came up short on two more fourth-down attempts in the final quarter. They finished the game 1-of-5 on fourth down and just 1-of-10 on third down.

Allbaugh’s final field goal, this one coming from 28 yards with 11 minutes to play, completed the day’s scoring. His kick also broke school records for made field goals in a game (five) and a season (15).

“I don’t like kicking field goals, I’m not going to lie,” Cronic said. “But it is wonderful to know that when you send him out there, that he’s going to make them.”

And thanks to a conference rival, Lenoir-Rhyne will play one more game between the bricks this season. Wingate won 41-31 at West Georgia to set up a rematch in Hickory next Saturday. The Bulldogs dropped the first meeting 31-24 on Sept. 22.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve played them,” Cronic said. “Both teams will be a little different now. They’ve grown into whatever their identity is, whatever they’re doing well. I think we’re a better team now. They’re a better team now. And we’re probably different in a lot of ways.”

“I just still think we have more to prove,” Willingham said. “I’m very excited for another opportunity to show what we can do.”

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