NEWBERRY — Down but never out, Newberry fought valiantly against visiting Tuskegee in the first round of the 2016 NCAA Division II Football Championship on Saturday at Setzler Field, falling 35-33 to the Golden Tigers to end the season with a 10-2 record.
Wide receiver Braxton Ivery took the majority of the snaps at the quarterback position after redshirt freshman backup Nick Jones was sidelined near the end of the second quarter with an injury. Ivery completed five passes for 92 yards and a score while adding a team-high 71 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. He also caught a pass for three yards early in the contest.
Tuskegee seized the lead and the momentum with 21 second-quarter points, including a touchdown in the final minute after an interception deep in Newberry territory was returned to the 2-yard line to set up the short field.
The 21-10 lead that Jerome Lewis’s 1-yard rush created on the second play of the drive created enough cushion for the Golden Tigers to withstand Newberry’s second-half charge.
Newberry cut Tuskegee’s lead to a single point after a 12-yard run by Ivery and a 32-yard Shea Rodgers field goal on the Wolves’ first two drives of the second half.
The Golden Tigers responded with a three-play, 76-yard drive capped with Kenny Gant’s 49-yard touchdown romp to stretch the lead to 28-20.
The Wolves were far from finished, however. Ivery’s 2-yard leap over the pile on the second play of the fourth quarter trimmed the deficit to 28-26. Ivery’s pass on the two-point conversion attempt failed, and a Tuskegee touchdown on the ensuing drive made the lead nine points.
Undeterred, Ivery marched the Wolves 70 yards down the field in seven plays, capping the drive with a 25-yard bomb to Markell Castle, who made a sensational grab and tapped his toes just in bounds to deliver the score.
Newberry threw an interception on its next possession, but the Wolves’ defense forced a three-and-out to give Ivery and the offense one final chance.
The senior found check-down option Keinan Lewis well short of the sticks, who broke several tackles and kept his legs churning as he fought to reach the first down marker. He was finally brought down after 14 yards on fourth and 15, capping one of Newberry’s best years in 103 seasons of football.
The Wolves finish the season one win shy of tying the program record of 11 set in 2006. Newberry had already matched the 2006 team’s school record of 10 consecutive wins with last week’s championship-clinching victory over Wingate.
The team will enter the 2017 season with its school-record 10-game South Atlantic Conference winning streak intact.
Castle was one of Newberry’s biggest contributors offensively, giving the Wolves 113 yards on just three receptions to finish with 976 yards on the season, a single yard shy of matching Tymere Zimmerman’s 2004 total for second in single-season school history.
His five 100-yard games in 2016 are the second-most in Newberry history behind David Pressley’s seven such efforts in 2010.
The Wolves were led on defense by a pair of sophomores in linebacker Joe Blue and defensive end Jamarcus Henderson. Blue finished with a team-high seven tackles, leading the team for the seventh time on the season.
Henderson had six stops, all unassisted, and counted two sacks among his three tackles for loss. He finishes the season with 9.5 sacks, the seventh-highest single-season total in Newberry history.
But the day and its milestones belonged to Newberry’s seniors, who leave the program with a conference championship, three playoff appearances, and the second-most wins (31) in any four-year period in school history.
Cole Watson had 37 receiving yards, finishing his career with 1,415 yards to place him 10th in school history. Romelo Doctor rushed for his 27th career touchdown to finish fifth all-time at Newberry.
He also passed Alex Haynes (2004-07) on the career rushing list by becoming the fifth running back in school history to run for 2,700 yards.
Tuskegee was paced by 139 yards and a score from Kenny Gant on the ground. Quarterback Kevin Lacey went 13-for-17 for 188 yards and two touchdowns through the air. The Golden Tigers became the first team this season to outgain Newberry’s offense, winning the total yardage battle 412-358.
Seventh-seeded Tuskegee advances to face No. 6 seed North Greenville in Tigerville next Saturday after the Crusaders scored a 27-13 road upset over Florida Tech on Saturday.
The winner of that contest will meet the winner of UNC Pembroke and North Alabama in the national quarterfinals.