FLORENCE, Ala. — Injuries finally took their toll on Lenoir-Rhyne.
Although the Bears had overcome much adversity while winning 13 consecutive games this season, a last-minute change at quarterback and the loss of their starting center in the first quarter – both because of injury – wreaked havoc on their execution in Saturday’s NCAA Division II football national championship.
Northwest Missouri State scored on its opening possession and went on to a 43-28 victory against Lenoir-Rhyne at Braly Municipal Stadium.
“Our goal was to get an early lead,” Bearcats coach Adam Dorrel said. “We’ve had success with that against triple-option teams like Lenoir-Rhyne that we’ve played in the past. I just sensed all day that we needed to be aggressive in our first 20 plays offensively.”
Despite the injuries, Lenoir-Rhyne coach Mike Houston said his team made too many mistakes to be successful.
“Playing the best team we’ve played all year, we couldn’t make mistakes,” he said. “I’m proud of the effort my team played with. I’m proud of the fight they showed.”
The Bearcats (15-0) were making a record eighth trip to the Division II title game and won their fourth championship (1998, 1999 and 2009 were the others).
The injury situation, which has plagued Lenoir-Rhyne all season, became so difficult in the third quarter, Houston was forced to substitute one injured quarterback for another.
Josh Justice, who started the season as the Bears’ third-string quarterback but moved into the starting role two weeks ago, suffered a painful ankle injury during practice Wednesday.
Sophomore Teverrius Jones, recently recovered from a neck injury, got the start Saturday but limped to the sideline with a knee sprain in the third quarter.
“I think we were a little rattled there early in the game on both sides of ball,” Houston said. “After we got calmed down, I thought we did a good job on execution.
“Most of the time when you have a successful season like this, you have avoided injuries. This year, it’s just been one after another.”
Lenoir-Rhyne (13-2) was making its first appearance in the Division II title game. The Bears appeared in the NAIA championship game three times in the 1950s and 1960s, winning the 1960 title.
The normally efficient Bears looked out of sorts in the first half, and senior center Parker Murray’s game-ending ACL injury in the first quarter didn’t help matters.
By halftime, Northwest Missouri State had run out to a 22-7 lead and took a 29-7 advantage with 7 minutes, 29 seconds left in the third quarter after turning a Bears fumble into a score.
On the Bears’ next possession, Jones came up limping after a running play and Justice entered the game to lead the offense. On his second snap, Justice hit Grayson Wells for a 59-yard touchdown reception that left the Bears trailing 29-14 with 6:01 left in the third.
The Bears appeared to gain new life, but on their next two possessions, they turned over the ball on downs and were forced to punt.
“I think it was a momentum thing,” said Justice, who won a state championship at Belmont South Point High. “They got the momentum first, but there are so many swings in the game.
“We had to battle hard to get the swing in our direction. Once we got it, it was just a little bit too late.”
One bright spot for Lenoir-Rhyne: The Bears finished the game with 273 yards rushing and set the record for the most rushing yards by a team in a single season in any NCAA division.
Perhaps there is another.
In three seasons as coach, Houston is 29-8 and the Bears have won three consecutive South Atlantic Conference championships and made two trips to the Division II playoffs.
Houston was asked after the game what this kind of season does for Lenoir-Rhyne football.
“I’d say it sets the bar,” he said. “The goal next year is not just to have a winning season. Our goal will be to get back to this game.”
Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter