CULLOWHEE, N.C. – Head coach Todd Knight’s message to his Newberry team at halftime, with the Wolves trailing Division I Football Championship Subdivision foe Western Carolina by two points, was simple.
Who believed the Wolves could be in that position? No one outside the Newberry locker room.
And who believed Newberry could go out, finish the job, and win the game? No one outside the locker room.
The Wolves (0-1) nearly did just that, taking a fourth-quarter lead on a 30-yard Dre Harris-to-Markell Castle connection with 11:26 to play, before Western Carolina (1-0) scored a pair of touchdowns in the final nine minutes to take a 33-26 win over the Wolves.
“I think we’ve got a good team,” said Knight. “We’ve got a lot of heart and we showed that on the field tonight. Our kids just have to keep believing.”
Forced to turn to Harris for large portions of the fourth quarter, the Newberry offense continued to rack up yardage. The redshirt freshman led the Wolves on a touchdown drive capped off by the perfectly-placed ball to Markell Castle to the back of the end zone through double coverage to give the Wolves a seven-point edge.
“I’m very proud of Dre as a freshman in a lot of pressure,” said Knight. “I think he performed well.”
But the lead would prove to be short lived after the Catamounts responded with a 75-yard scoring drive capped off by a one-yard scamper by quarterback Tyrie Adams.
Newberry drove near midfield on its next possession, but was forced to punt, leading to an 86-yard touchdown drive by the Catamounts that ended with Adams’ third rushing touchdown of the day. Western Carolina converted a critical 3rd-and-16 from deep in its own territory with a 17-yard connection from Adams to Tyran Reynolds, putting momentum in the Catamounts’ favor for good.
The Wolves had 1:10 to mount a final comeback attempt and were able to drive into Catamounts’ territory, but a sack, a spike, and two incompletions thwarted the upset bid.
Castle matched his career high with 10 catches, totaling 118 yards and scoring the 18th touchdown of his career. He moved from 10th to sixth in Newberry history in receptions (120), jumped a spot to sixth in career receiving yards with 1,875, and moved into a tie for second with his 10th 100-yard game.
Austin Barnes had a career-high 141 yards on 20 carries, his third 100-yard game in scarlet and gray. Greg Ruff added 14 carries for 66 yards, helping the Wolves to 206 yards rushing, their most since downing Limestone in November 2016. Newberry’s 451 yards of total offense were also the most against an NCAA opponent since the 2016 Limestone contest.
Ruff was also dangerous through the air, finishing 13-for-20 for 163 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The redshirt sophomore has now thrown 13 touchdowns without an interception in his career and surpassed 1,000 yards passing in a Newberry uniform. Harris went 6-for-8 for 82 yards and a score in his first collegiate action.
Joe Blue was practically everywhere defensively. The senior from Dillon racked up 20 tackles, the most by a Newberry player since at least the 2000 season and coming within five stops of the all-time South Atlantic Conference record. He also chipped in a pass breakup and tied Jamarcus Henderson for the team lead with a pair of tackles for loss.
The announced attendance of 12,111 was the biggest crowd Newberry has played in front of since at least the 1998 season, which coincided with the advent of computerized statistical records. It was also the largest crowd at E.J. Whitmire Stadium since October 2016. The crowd was bolstered with a sizable contingent of Newberry faithful.
“I say it all the time, there’s no fan base better in our league,” Knight commented after the game. “The Newberry faithful are ‘it,’ they’re the benchmark. It just goes to show you what we have at our place is special. The town loves the college and the team, and it’s vice versa. You can see it every Saturday.”
The Wolves opened the game with a seven-play, 77-yard drive to stun the Catamounts and take a 7-0 lead just 3:21 into the game. Austin Barnes gobbled up 12, 5, and 16 yards on his three touches, with a five-yard completion to Markell Castle and a 14-yard rush by Greg Ruff helping the Wolves to march to the Catamounts’ 25-yard line.
Ruff wasn’t ready for the first-down snap but was able to run the ball down and elude a would-be tackler in the backfield. Bobby Irby waited near the boundary and broke down the sideline as Ruff rolled to his left. Ruff lifted a perfect throw into single coverage that Irby brought down tumbling into the back of the end zone to give the Wolves the early lead.
The Catamounts rattled off 19 unanswered points to take the lead before Barnes’ 51-yard rumbled helped set up a 32-yard field goal by Kevin Weber. The Wolves then scored with 37 seconds left in the half to pull within two on a 44-yard catch-and-run by a wide-open Keinan Lewis, who juked several defenders on his way to paydirt.
Newberry returns to action next Saturday with a road game at Florida Tech. Kickoff from the Sunshine State is set for 1:00 p.m.