WILLIAMSBURG, Ky. - The University of the Cumberlands (UC) football team came into their NAIA FCS Semifinal round matchup looking for a first in school history. The Patriots have already rewritten history this season with a #1 ranking and a 12-0 record. The Patriots would need a win against NAIA power Carroll College for a trip to the NAIA National Championship for the first time in school history. Could the Patriots continue their momentum and complete their "Road to Rome"?
When you get to the final four in any sporting event, you can expect a battle. The best way to describe this game was a heavyweight title fight that saw each team give its best shot. The first quarter was a clear example, as each team exchanged offensive possessions without any team finding the end zone as the Patriots were shutout for the first time in the 1st quarter all season. Carroll College wasted no time in the 2nd quarter though as they capped off a 6 play, 69 yard touchdown drive off with a Dustin Rinker touchdown run, giving Carroll the 7-0 lead.
UC answered right back on the next possession as Hunter Lewis (Dunlap, TN) put it in from 6 yards out. The missed extra point by Al Merrick (Pineville, KY) though would make the game 7-6 Carroll with 9 minutes to go in the 1st half. On the next drive, the Saints seemed to find their form as they drove it all the way down to the UC 12, before the bend-not-break motto of the Michael Collins' defense held to form as they held the Saints to a field goal to make it 10-6 Carroll with 4 minutes to go in the half. Both teams exchanged possessions before UC got the ball back with a minute to go in the half. After a 37 yard pass from Adam Craig (Jackson, TN) to Willie Gibson (Abbeville, GA), D'Angelo Jordan (Jacksonville, FL) then took the rush attempt 12 yards for a touchdown, giving UC a 13-10 lead going into halftime.
When great teams play like the caliber of the Patriots and the Saints, you can expect halftime adjustments and taking advantages of opportunities. This was exactly what happened in the 2nd half. The Patriots came out looking to capitalize off the momentum from the late touchdown in the 1st half. They used that momentum as they capped off the 3 play, 71 yard touchdown drive with a 63 yard quarterback keeper by Adam Craig to make it 20-10 Patriots.
UC then looked to be in good shape on the Carroll possession as they forced them to a quick three and out and looked to get the ball back up 20-10 and with all the momentum. Iquan Deed (Montezuma, GA) muffed the punt return and Carroll recovered it at the UC 35, giving the Saints great field position. Carroll wasted no time as they scored on a 2 play drive with a 20 yard touchdown pass. It seemed like momentum was swinging in the Saints favor as they stopped UC on a 4th down attempt at the Carroll 20 yard line. Carroll came right back as their offense seemed to find its form as they scored on a 5 play, 80 yard touchdown drive with a 22 yard touchdown pass and a 24-20 lead with 2 minutes left in the 3rd.
The Patriots turned their momentum quickly back to their side with a tiring 12 play, 84 yard touchdown drive that ended with a 1 yard Adam Craig touchdown run to make it 27-24 early in the 4th quarter. Carroll came right back, but the bend-not-break defense came back to life as they forced the Saints to a field goal to tie it up 27-27 with 10 minutes left in the fourth. Both teams exchanged possessions as it looked like UC would get the ball back with just enough time for a game winning touchdown drive. The Saints held the Patriots to a three and out and a chance for the Saints to have a game winning drive themselves.
After a punt that gave Carroll the ball back at their 43 yard line, it looked like the Saints were in great position to win the game. It wasn't meant to be as two huge sacks by Carson Newman (Jefferson, GA) on back to back plays ended regulation with a 27-27 score. This was the first overtime game for UC since 2007 against Virginia-Wise, where the Patriots came out on top 41-38. This was also the first OT game at UC since 2006 against UVA-Wise, where UC came out the victor 40-34.
The Saints won the toss and elected to play defense first. UC wasted no time scoring as Craig completed a wide open pass to Iquan Deed on a 12 yard touchdown pass to make it 34-27 Patriots. It looked like the Saints would do the same as they connected on a touchdown completion, but a holding penalty took the play away and the Saints would be brought back. Then after a dropped pass, it came down to a critical 4th and goal from the 21 yard line with a chance at the national championship on the line. The UC defense attacked and the "sharks" defense came up big as none other than 4 year starter and captain of the defense Weston Hazelhurst (Clinton, TN) came up with a sack and a Patriots win. The 34-27 win for UC puts them into the NAIA National Championship game for the first time in school history.
Head Coach John Bland was all smiles after the game as he commented, "I just love this team. They are special guys and I look forward to coaching them every day. This is a huge win for our program and a program defining moment. Now, we just have one more game to go to reach our ultimate goal of winning a national championship."
The Patriots were led by a tremendous defensive effort. Even though they gave up 493 yards of total yards, the bend-not-break effort of the Patriots came up huge as they held the Saints to an incredible 0 for 12 on third down conversions. They also came up with key defensive sacks when the Patriots needed it most. They were led defensively by Weston Hazelhurst with 17 total tackles with the key sack that ended the game. Nick Smith (Knoxville, TN) also came up with some huge plays as he had 13 total tackles. Robert McCormick (Louisville, KY) and Carson Newman also came up with 2 huge sacks each as the defensive pressure gave the Saints fits all game long.
Offensively, the Patriots were led by none other than freshman sensation Adam Craig who had 27 carries for 165 yards and 2 touchdowns. Craig also became the first player in school history to run for 1,000 yards and pass for 1,000 yards in the same season, as on the year he now has 1,157 rushing with 24 touchdowns, and 1,305 yards passing with 13 touchdowns. Willie Gibson also came up with some big time catches as he had 5 catches for 88 yards. The UC offense continued their dominant rushing attack as they had 385 total yards with 287 yards coming on the ground.
The Patriots will now turn their attention to Grand View University who won their semifinal round matchup against Morningside this afternoon 35-0. That game will be at Rome, Georgia in Barron Stadium on December 21st with kickoff set for 4:30 pm. Both teams will be looking for their first NAIA Football National Championship in school history.