NEWBERRY – Unlikely though they may have seemed a mere half-hour before, public address announcer Dr. John Lesaine’s words gave finality to what over 4,000 raucous fans had witnessed on the playing surface of Setzler Field moments before.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pride and pleasure to present to you the 2016 South Atlantic Conference football champions, your Newberry College Wolves!”
The stadium erupted into elation as players drenched head coach Todd Knight and spilled onto the field. South Atlantic Conference Commissioner Patrick Britz presented Knight with the championship trophy on a raised stage at midfield moments later.
Despite more than its fair share of adversity, the Wolves outscored visiting Wingate (8-3, 5-2 SAC) 13-0 in the fourth quarter for a 27-22 win that handed Newberry (10-1, 7-0 SAC) its third-ever and second outright conference championship and assured the Wolves of a postseason bid.
The outlook appeared bleak as Newberry entered the fourth quarter trailing the Bulldogs 22-14. The defense had kept Wingate out of the end zone on three previous lengthy drives that stalled out deep inside Newberry territory. The Wingate offense, however, had found its stride on its previous two scoring drives set up by Newberry turnovers.
Wingate took over at its own 20 following a Newberry punt with half the final period gone by. Terrance Salley and Jaquille Oden combined for a tackle for loss on Blake Hayes, who led all players with 165 yards on the ground.
On the next play, LaQuan White came away with an interception at the 29-yard line as his momentum carried him toward the center of the field. He doubled back toward the near sideline and was being ridden to the ground when he pitched the ball to Oden. The defensive lineman rumbled for an additional 15 yards before stepping out of bounds at the Wingate 10-yard line.
Braxton Ivery took a direct snap on the first play of the drive and scampered around the left side behind left tackle Tyler Stasky for a touchdown. Newberry’s two-point conversion attempt to tie the score was picked off, but the momentum had shifted for good as the gigantic scarlet-clad crowd gave the Wolves an insurmountable home field advantage.
Wingate went backwards on its next possession, including an 8-yard loss on a sack by Salley, and a short punt gave Newberry possession a yard inside enemy territory.
Ivery called his own number again on Newberry’s first snap. He peered right, then sprung free to the left off a tremendous block from Bobby McNeil. The speedy Ivery angled toward the sideline, where a downfield block from Wesley Jordan helped him gain the boundary.
He slipped out of a tackle just inside the 25 and outsprinted two defenders to the pylon, giving Newberry touchdowns on two consecutive snaps and a five-point lead.
The Wingate offense mounted a formidable attempt at a comeback, converting three third downs to reach the Newberry red zone. Rashaad Smith broke up passes on consecutive plays to set up a 3rd and 10 from the Wolves’ 19. Avery Shippy stopped Wingate receiver Malik Bledsoe two yards short of the marker with 1:04 to play to set up a decisive 4th and 2 from the 11.
Quarterback James Whitaker’s pass for Jordan Berry was incomplete, giving Newberry its school-record 10th straight win, a 10th consecutive SAC victory, the outright SAC title, and a berth in the 2016 NCAA Division II Football Championship.
Forced into an emergency start, backup quarterback Nick Jones performed admirably. He completed 16 of his 21 pass attempts for 242 yards and two touchdowns and added 28 yards on the ground. His first scoring play came on 16-yard strike to a wide open Baptiste Staggers in the final minute of the first half to cap a nine-play, 75-yard drive and cut Wingate’s lead to 9-7.
His second was from 19 yards out to Markell Castle, ending another drive of 75 yards that sliced the Bulldogs’ lead to a single point with 8:06 to play in the third quarter.
Castle led all players with 105 yards on six receptions, his fourth 100-yard receiving game of the season. He now has 863 yards on the season, moving from ninth to third on Newberry’s single-season receiving yardage list by passing such names as all-time leading receiver Tymere Zimmerman’s 2003 total and future NFL players Brandon Bostick (2010) and Corey Washington (2012, 2013).
But the day’s brightest offensive star was undoubtedly the versatile Ivery, who split time with Jones at quarterback exclusively in a wildcat package. He rushed for 74 yards and the two fourth-quarter scores on eight carries and added four catches for 79 yards to his total.
The Wolves limited Wingate’s offense to 327 yards, including just 142 yards through the air on 12-for-26 passing. Will Elm and Joe Blue tied for the team lead with 11 tackles, while Blue added a sack and a pass breakup. Oden counted three tackles for loss among his nine stops and added 15 return yards on White’s interception and pitch. Blue, Jamarcus Henderson, and Salley added a sack and two tackles for loss apiece, while Smith finished the night with three passes broken up.
With the win, Newberry assures itself a spot in the playoffs and will likely earn a home game in the first round on Saturday, Nov. 19.