FLORENCE, Ala. — Little Lenoir-Rhyne is about to step onto one of the biggest stages in college football.
Playing for a national championship.
Lenoir-Rhyne, one of the smallest football-playing schools in enrollment in NCAA Division II with approximately 1,900 students, will face Northwest Missouri State for the championship Saturday.
Despite playing in the Division II tournament for just the second time in school history and playing away from the cozy confines of Moretz Stadium for the first time since Nov. 16, Lenoir-Rhyne is determined to stick to its familiar strategy, which has produced a school-record 13-win season.
The things that will win us this ball game are no different than the things which won our regular-season game against Carson-Newman, which was picked to win our league, coach Mike Houston said of the Bears 37-3 victory on Nov. 2. We played the best in that game during the regular season.
If we can go out and play that game, well have a chance at success. We cant worry about whats outside the lines the crowd, the hoopla or the meaning of the game.
Just worry about everything between the lines.
That strategy, which focuses on a triple-option offense and hard-hitting defense, has served the Bears well.
Lenoir-Rhyne leads Division II in rushing at 377.9 yards per game and is just 31 yards short of the all-time Division II record for rushing yards in a season. The Bears have rushed for 5,290 yards, but dont have a player who has crossed the 1,000-yard mark.
Try as they might to avoid distractions, there were still marked differences in the pregame experience this week for the Bears.
Lenoir-Rhyne rolled into town Wednesday night, and on Thursday morning, players from both teams took part in the Alabama Reading Initiative, reading to students at area elementary schools.
Next up were a luncheon and news conference, then practices in the afternoon. Each team will have a final closed practice Friday.
Bears quarterback Josh Justice, thrown into the starting lineup late in the year when the first- and second-string QBs suffered injuries, said he and his teammates are excited about the opportunity on Saturday.
This is it theres nothing after this week, so we know we have to go out there and give it everything we have for 60 minutes, said Justice, who has 403 yards rushing and has scored nine touchdowns in six games this season.
Were happy to be here and having a good time. But everyone knows what were here for, and thats to win another football game.
Although the Bears won the 1960 NAIA championship and enjoyed much success on the field in the 1950s and 1960s, Lenoir-Rhyne had sat out postseason play for more than 50 years before qualifying for last seasons Division II playoffs.
In just its second Division II playoff run, this year Lenoir-Rhyne earned a regional No. 1 seed and hosted its first three playoff games.
Northwest Missouri State is 14-0 and making its record eighth trip to the Division II championship game, having won the title in 1998, 1999 and 2009.
Josh and I have played in state championship games, so we have some experience in a big-game atmosphere, said Bears senior defensive back Michael Green. I have to tell you, though, that most of these guys they are loving life right now.
Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.