NEWBERRY — In the press box 20 minutes after the game, after hearing the final statistical totals for the first time, a frigid, Powerade-drenched head coach Todd Knight was still in a state of shock at what had transpired on the field before him.
“Did they really only complete eight passes? For 63 yards? They’ve got two of the best receivers in America.”
It was all true.
Actually, there’s two more things, Coach. Your six interceptions matched a South Atlantic Conference record that had stood since 1993. And they put Newberry into a tie with Appalachian State (Division I FBS) and Trine (Division III) for the most in NCAA football in 2017.
Newberry (5-6, 3-4 SAC) more than doubled Mars Hill’s (3-7, 1-6 SAC) total offensive output without completing a pass as the Wolves ended the season on a high note with a 28-0 win, nearly two years to the day of the Wolves’ most recent shutout.
With a hobbled Greg Ruff taking severely limited snaps and Nick Jones ruled out, the Wolves turned to a seven-man quarterback rotation that featured a tight end (Baptiste Staggers), two wide receivers (Markell Castle and J.T. Waters), and three running backs (Austin Barnes, Chance Walker and Darius Clark) spending nearly the entire game behind center.
Newberry was 0-for-4 through the air and did not attempt a pass in the second half, but netted 385 yards rushing, its most in four years, to wear down a Mars Hill defense that was also dealing with more than its fair share of injuries. Barnes (116 yards) and Staggers (102) became the first Newberry duo to reach triple figures on the ground since October 2015.
But the story of the game came in the form of Newberry’s defense, which limited the nation’s sixth-best passing attack to 267 yards below its season average. The Lions were 8-for-25 for 63 yards through the air after averaging 329.6 yards through their first nine games and had a pass efficiency rating that bordered on unbelievable at 5.2, the lowest on record for any Newberry opponent in school history.
The Wolves ended all five of Mars Hill’s second-half possessions with interceptions to go along with Will Elm’s pick on the Lions’ opening drive.
Newberry’s first score came early in the second quarter after a promising drive was snuffed out inches shy of the goal line. Mars Hill took over on downs but was unable to advance past its own 25. A short punt and nine-yard return gave the Wolves the ball five yards inside Mars Hill territory.
Staggers rushed up the middle for 12 yards and Manny McCord went around the edge for six before Staggers rumbled 27 yards through a gaping hole on the left side and high-stepped into the end zone. Newberry entered the half ahead by seven points and went three-and-out on its first drive of the third quarter, but was quickly able to use its defense to catalyze its offense.
Boo Williams picked off a deep pass at the Newberry 11 and returned it 32 yards with five minutes gone by in the period. Castle immediately picked up 22 yards on an end-around and earned 15 more with a Mars Hill facemask penalty. Waters called his own number three straight times to gobble up 19 yards before Barnes crossed the plane from a yard out to double the lead with 7:31 to play in the period.
Will Holbrook then made his first career interception at the Lions’ 47-yard line four plays later. Barnes rumbled to the 4-yard line on the first play of the drive and found the end zone with another one-yard dive.
Jawanza Adams snuffed out a Mars Hill possession with an interception at the 3-yard line on the final play of the third quarter. David Vereen’s first-ever pick terminated the Lions’ next drive just inside Mars Hill territory and led to Castle’s first-ever rushing touchdown from 11 yards out.
With the game all but decided in the final minute, a pair of 15-yard penalties against the Wolves prompted Mars Hill to be more aggressive with its playcalling. On the game’s final play, LaQuan White made the record-sealing pick near the goal line and returned it 70 yards before he was finally dragged down.
The Wolves out-gained Mars Hill 385-187 despite running just one more play than the visitors on the afternoon. Newberry also limited Mars Hill to 2-for-9 on third down chances and stopped the Lions on all three of their fourth-down opportunities.
Reigning AstroTurf SAC Offensive Player of the Week Keshaun Taylor of Mars Hill, who entered the game ranked second nationally in Division II with 1,266 yards on the season, was limited to a pair of catches for 15 yards.
Six Newberry players rushed for at least 20 yards. Jamarcus Henderson finished his day with a pair of sacks, giving him eight for the season and moving him into fourth in school history with 21.5 in his career.
Saturday marked the final game for Newberry’s 29 seniors, who depart the program with 26 wins, a pair of NCAA Championship appearances, and the 2016 SAC title in their careers.