Heading into Hickory from Cullowhee, it was wet, rainy, and foggy, which may have been God's way of foreshadowing the game between the #14 Lenoir-Rhyne Bears and the #1 Ferris State Bulldogs. However, pulling up to the newly upgraded Moretz Stadium, it's evident that the Bears are building something special in Hickory. Currently a Division II university, I believe that the stadium and facility upgrades are preparing the Bears to jump from Division II to the FCS. There's a reason the defending Division II National Champions made the trip from Central Michigan to Hickory, North Carolina.
Though a dreary day where most people would much rather stay home to watch football, the tailgate turnout was like any other game at Lenoir-Rhyne. You had your cheese and crackers side of the tailgate, sipping on their wine and doing their usual thing on one side of the stadium, and you also had the party hard frats out in full force on the other.
I met up with my best friend, TK, the former Lenoir-Rhyne long snapper, under the new press box for my tickets, and walking into the stadium had a completely new feel. Before this season, the stadium itself could've been an excellent high school stadium, but now, I would put it up against any stadiums in the Southern Conference (FCS) and possibly lower-tier FBS schools.
Though Saturday's performance wasn't the best for the Bears, there is a lot the team can take from their 27-5 loss against Ferris State. First and foremost, a solid special teams unit is essential. The Bulldogs didn't have a lot of weaknesses, but their special teams are easily their biggest. The lack of skill on special teams resulted in the Bears going up 2-0 less than two minutes into the game.
The Bulldog's long snapper sent the ball flying over the punter resulting in a safety. TK will use that snap as an example of why any football team needs to have an accurate long snapper. Not only do they need to be accurate, but they need to be able to get the ball back fast. Several times throughout the game, Ferris State nearly blocked a punt, but current long-snapper Carson Keaton is arguably one of the best to do it in Division II and got it back in just enough time.
To close out the first quarter, the Ferris State Quarterback, Evan Cummins, would connect with receiver Xavier Wade and complete a 75-yard touchdown, the first and longest touchdown of the game.
Just over four minutes in the second quarter, the Bears would get into field goal range, and kicker J. Medlin would send one through the uprights after they inched their way 46-yards downfield. But, unfortunately, this would be the last time the Bears would score.
Offensively, it was a struggle for the Bears. Coach Mike Jacobs, and I hate to say this about a coach for one of my favorite teams, has to expand his playbook. RB Dwayne McGee might be a Division II All-American, but after the fifteenth run up the middle with little to no yards to show for it, you would think a coach would try something new, even if out of desperation. To end the day, the Bears had 16 rushing yards.
Defensively, I don't think the Bears can be too upset. The 14 of the 27 points scored directly resulted from the offense turning the ball over and putting the Bulldogs in a great scoring position. The first touchdown was bad coverage from a DB, and the second touchdown that fell in the second quarter, well, that touchdown can be put on the defense as the Bulldogs pounded the ball 81 yards down the field in 15 plays. The fourth quarter was a phenomenal performance by both defenses as nobody scored to close the game. To conclude, Lenoir-Rhyne's defense may be the best in the SAC this year.
Looking ahead, the Bears will not play an opponent as powerful as Ferris State. There were some good things to take away from this game, such as LR has a killer defense, and the coach, I hope, learned not to rely on his All-American running back when he's not playing well.
Before opening conference play against Carson-Newman in two weeks, Lenoir-Rhyne will travel to take on Erskine in Greenwood, South Carolina. I predict that this bump in the road will do more good than harm for the Lenoir-Rhyne Bears and that they have a serious chance of making a deep playoff run.