WINGATE, N.C. (release) -- No. 21 Carson-Newman (9-2, 5-2 South Atlantic Conference) was nearly unstoppable offensively, but still had to withstand a late fourth quarter comeback from Wingate (4-6, 3-4 SAC), in a 52-35 victory for the Eagles that likely secures C-N a spot in the NCAA playoffs.
The Eagles rung up 648 yards of total offense and converted on 13-of-16 third downs and only punted once. C-N failed to score on just four drives.
In spite of the Eagles offensive dominance, Wingate went on a 21-3 run spanning the third and fourth quarters before Luther Walker (Pasadena, Calif.) snagged a 47-yard touchdown catch – a play wide receiver coach Derek Rang drew up. The Eagle defense made a stop on fourth down and Tyron Douglas (Clover, S.C) stomped into the end zone on a 17-yard run to cement the final margin at 17 points.
“We were playing to win the ballgame,” Carson-Newman head coach Ken Sparks said. “It’s easy to sit on it a little bit, especially with the way we run the football. (Offensive Coordinator Mike) Turner did not back it down at all and we played to win the ballgame.”
Carson-Newman’s offense featured its first trio of 100-yard rushers since the Eagles’ 38-35 playoff win over Lenoir-Rhyne last year. Brandon Baker (Miami, Fla.) led the way with 150 yards. De’Andre Thomas (Milledgeville, Ga.) added 123 yards on the ground to go along with the second three-rushing touchdown performance of his career, while Douglas wound up with 112 yards and the game’s final score.
Thomas also added 172 yards through the air on 13-of-16 passing and a pair of scores.
“We blocked the line of scrimmage well and the backs were just ripping,” Sparks said. “We mixed it up well. De’Andre did a fine job running the football and throwing it, 13-of-15 isn’t bad.”
The Eagles started in fiery fashion similar to the Newberry game. The Eagles scored the first three touchdowns of the game to take a 21-0 lead at the midpoint of the second quarter. Andy Hibbett (Corryton, Tenn.) polished off a 54-yard touchdown run to start the scoring while Thomas converted on runs of 16 yards and three yards to push the Eagles’ initial lead out to 21.
Wingate would strike back spanning the half. A Robbie Nallenweg 12-yard touchdown pass to the left boundary for Brandon Ellington got the Bulldogs on the board with 1:20 left in the first half. Then Nallenweg hooked up with Jordan Berry on a 37-yard pass on the Bulldogs opening drive of the second half to get within a score.
The Eagles would respond with 14 unanswered points of their own with a De’Andre Thomas one-yard touchdown sneak and a Steven Isom (Maryville, Tenn.) nine-yard touchdown catch on a comeback route on the left sideline of the endzone with 4:12 left in the third quarter.
The score was Isom’s first in 378 days. He last found the endzone in the Tusculum game in 2012.
Following Isom’s score, Wingate began to make its comeback. Mark Clyburn snared an eight-yard touchdown pass at the goal line. On the ensuing kickoff the Eagles coughed up a Wingate pooch kick. The Bulldogs made C-N pay, taking advantage of the short field with a four-play, 31-yard drive capped off by a Josh Covington one-yard touchdown run.
The Eagles would then milk clock. C-N rolled 7:41 off it on an 18-play drive that ended in a Curt Duncan (Morristown, Tenn.) 24-yard field goal with 6:5 left in the contest. Following Berry’s second touchdown grab, the Eagles shut the door on Wingate with Walker and Douglas’ scores.
“We’re grateful to be where we are. So let’s go play another one,” Sparks said. “It has not been easy to remain focused. We’ve had gobs and gobs of injuries. But I’m proud of this crew for staying with it and playing as unto the Lord.”
The Eagles surrendered 432 yards passing to Nallenweg and the Bulldogs. The 6-5 senior was 32-of-48 through the air with two picks against four touchdowns. However, C-N limited Wingate to negative seven yards rushing including four sacks of Wingate’s quarterback. Javaris Neal (Columbia, Tenn.) had one and a half of those.
Greg Beauduy (Deerfield Beach, Fla) made 12 stops and Jaycob Coleman (Norton, Va.) contributed 11 with a pick. Eien Jacob (Jeanerette, La.) also came up with his fifth interception of the year.
The Eagles will find out their playoff fate Sunday at 5 p.m. during the NCAA’s selection show at ncaa.com. Check cneagles.com for details with where the Eagles will be.