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. Lenoir-Rhyne can clinch the SAC crown outright with a win in its regular season finale against Catawba.
Lenoir-Rhyne 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 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 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 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 being forced to punt. The Eagles responded with a 13-play, 92-yard drive that saw Damian Baker 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 Lenoir-Rhyne.
Carson-Newman’s defense forced the Bears off the field with another punt. The Eagles pushed the ball inside Lenoir-Rhyne’s 40 looking to take the lead for the first time on the day. However, Andy Hibbett coughed up a fumble that the Bears’ Lendre Sparrow pounced on for the possession.
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 pay dirt once more on a Thomas three-yard run but couldn’t recover the onside kick. Lenoir-Rhyne ran out the clock to end the game.
The loss takes control of Carson-Newman’s playoff destiny out of the Eagles’ hands. Carson-Newman was ranked seventh in the region and Lenoir-Rhyne second.