Lenoir-Rhyne unbeaten football season ends with Valdosta

The Lenoir-Rhyne Bears saw their unbeaten season come to an end with a 23-21 loss to the Valdosta State (Georgia) Blazers in an NCAA Division II second-round playoff game Saturday at Moretz Stadium in Hickory. Valdosta State will play at West Georgia next Saturday in a third-round playoff matchup.

Lenoir-Rhyne, ranked No. 3 in NCAA Div. II (AFCA Coaches Poll), finished the regular season undefeated at 11-0, but after a first-round bye couldn’t continue its winning ways against the No. 21 ranked Blazers.

A season-high five turnovers were the main culprit for the Bears, who outgained the Blazers in total offense with 480 yards to 259.

After only committing 15 turnovers in 11 regular-season games, the Bears couldn’t protect the football Saturday, yielding three interceptions and two fumbles.

Lenoir-Rhyne (11-1) led all NCAA divisions in rushing offense, averaging 415.5 yards per game this season. The Bears exceeded that number Saturday with 424 rushing yards, but the turnovers were too much to overcome.

Blazers running back Cedric O’Neal had a pair of rushing touchdowns (26 and 2 yards) and kicker Anthony Pistelli booted three field goals of 48, 35 and 45 yards in the Valdosta State victory.

Bears quarterback Miles Freeman led the Bears in rushing with 120 yards on 20 carries. Michael Patrick also hit the century mark with 112 yards in 13 attempts for Lenoir-Rhyne.

Having a good day for Valdosta State (10-2) was Blazers backup quarterback Kaleb Nobles, who came in for injured starter Jake Medlock early in the second quarter. Nobles calmly led the Blazers on four scoring drives in a little under three quarters of play. Nobles only blemish was a 28-yard pick-six by Charlotte native and Providence High School grad Chris Shaffer in the third quarter.

Valdosta State coach David Dean was asked if he had to change the offense once Nobles took over at quarterback. “No, not at all,” he said. “We called the same plays; and both of these guys know how to run our offense, know what to do. It wasn’t a matter of changing anything, just a matter of execution.”

The Valdosta State defense couldn’t slow down the Lenoir-Rhyne rushing game, but it only yielded two Bears offensive touchdowns, along with forcing the five turnovers. Blazers safety Isaiah Gresham had one of his team’s three interceptions and talked about the strategy of Valdosta State’s defense entering the contest.

“We came into the game focusing on turnovers,” said Gresham. “We forced them to pitch the ball on the perimeters; throw the ball deep, which they don’t do a lot, and we’ll get turnovers. And that’s what we did today.”

Trailing by two points, the Bears had one last chance to stage a comeback with under a minute to play. But a fourth-down pass fell incomplete at midfield with just seconds left, and Lenoir-Rhyne’s season officially came to a close.

Bears first-year coach Ian Shields reflected on what was a very successful season despite falling in the playoffs. “It’s been a special season and a special group of young men,” he said.

“There have been a lot of accomplishments with this senior class, and we’re going to miss them greatly. They’re what college athletes should be all about.”