The University of the Cumberlands (UC) football team came into their NAIA Football Championship Series (FCS) opening round matchup looking to continue their success of the season. The Patriots went a perfect 10-0 in the regular season and finished ranked #1 in the nation. The road would be difficult for the Patriots though as they took on an explosive Saint Ambrose University (SAU) offense looking to pull off the upset over the Patriots.
The Patriots wasted no time jumping on the Bees early as they took their first drive 76 yards on 5 plays which was capped off by an Adam Craig (Jackson, TN) 3 yard touchdown run, giving UC an early 7-0 lead. St. Ambrose didn't seem worried as on their first drive of the game they took their opening drive 71 yards on 12 plays that ended with a 1 yard touchdown run, but after a rare missed extra point, the Patriots still held the 7-6 lead with a little under 9 minutes in the first quarter. After SAU forced a stop of the explosive Patriot offense, they took over and quickly found the end zone again as they scored on a 37 yard touchdown pass from Eric Williamson to Conor McDonald but the 2 point conversation failed to make it 12-7 Bees in the first quarter.
It was now the Patriots time to answer and they did just that on the next drive as Iquan Deed (Montezuma, GA) scored a touchdown on a 7 yard run to make it 14-12 Patriots to just start off the 2nd quarter. The Patriot defense then got a much needed stop of the Bees' offense that helped get the ball back for the Patriots and try to take control of the game. UC looked to do just that as they drove the ball down the field beautifully and capped it off with an Adam Craig 4 yard touchdown run to make it 21-12 Patriots with 7 minutes to go in the half.
After another huge UC defensive stop, the offense came back out onto the field looking to put the nail in the coffin of SAU. Craig did it once again as he scored another rushing touchdown, this one from 20 yards out to make it 28-12 Patriots with 2 minutes to go in the half. With an offense as potent and speedy as the Bees though, they looked to score one more touchdown before the half. SAU did just that as they drove the ball down the field to score on a 9 play 58 yard drive, and after successfully attempting a 2 point conversion, made it 28-20 UC going into the half.
All season long it has been the 2nd half where the Patriots have unleashed their depth and explosiveness on teams and made the adjustments to shut down their opposition to secure victories. The NAIA FCS game would be no different for UC this season as they held SAU to a three and out on the opening drive of the 2nd half. UC took the field and completed an 11 play, 56 yard drive with another Adam Craig touchdown run to make it 35-20 Patriots with 7 minutes to go in the third. St. Ambrose clinched to desperation and were able to drive the ball on a ramped up Patriot defense and successfully completed the 2 point conversion once again to make it 35-28 UC with 3 minutes to go in the third.
It was then time for the Patriots offense to continue their success on the offensive side of the ball as Craig and his offense came back onto the field looking to shut the door on SAU for good. Craig and his offense did just that as he led a 4 play, 46 yard drive capped off by a 12 yard touchdown run from Craig to make it 42-28 Patriots with a minute to play in the third. The UC defense and the "Sharks" were out in full force as they got after the SAU offense and gave quarterback Eric Williamson fits the rest of the game.
After holding SAU to a turnover on downs Craig came back to the field looking to continue his historic day. He did just that only this time with his arm, as he pulled off a jump pass to Iquan Deed who took it 66 yards for a touchdown to give the Patriots a 49-28 lead. The next drive, it was Albert Huntley (Mableton, GA) who got the first turnover for the Patriots as he picked off Williamson on an incredible catch to give the UC offense the ball and a 49-28 lead. The SAU defense finally found a way to stop the UC offense as they held them to a punt where they took over at their own 23 yard line.
The Patriot defense held once again as they forced another Bees turnover on downs. This time, UC took advantage as they capped off a 10 play, 45 yard drive with a 8 yard touchdown pass from Adam Craig to Keith DeVeaux (McDonough, GA) to seal the deal for the Patriots on a 56-28 win and a 1st round victory in the NAIA FCS Playoffs.
The win was a historic one by the Patriots as it moved them to 11-0 for the season, the first team in school history to reach the 11 win mark. This also marks the first time in school history the Patriots have won a first round game in consecutive seasons. Head Coach John Bland was proud of his team and how they continue to impress him as he commented, "We played so well. It was big being at home for this and the guys really played off that and it's nice to know you don't have to worry about travel. This was a good football team we beat and we did so many things well. I am more impressed each week I see this team and am proud of them for a total team victory."
For the offense, it was all Adam Craig as he had a remarkable offensive performance. Craig finished the day with 24 carries for 115 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground. He also threw for 106 yards on 6-7 passing for 2 more touchdowns, finishing the day with 221 total offensive yards and 7 touchdowns. He was named the offensive player of the game. Hunter Lewis (Dunlap, TN) also had a huge game for the UC offense has he ran for 143 yards on 14 carries. The UC offense continued to impress as they racked up 518 total yards with 412 of those yards coming on the ground.
As for the defense, they looked very solid after a rough 1st half, but came out looking like a team determined for greatness. Credit goes to defensive coordinator Michael Collins for making the adjustments and holding the explosive SAU offense that racked up over 700 yards and 80 points last week to 432 yards this week and 28 points. Faquan Calhoun (Lebanon, KY) and Weston Hazelhurst (Clinton, TN) carried the load for the UC defense as they made key plays. Calhoun had 9 total tackles and looked to be all over the field. As for Hazelhurst, he had 8 tackles including a huge sack to stop a Bees' huge offensive drive. Hazelhurst was named defensive player of the game for his effort on the defensive side of the football.
The Patriots now turn their attention to the NAIA FCS Quarterfinals. The announcement of the opponent will be made on Sunday November 24th, but the Patriots know one thing they will be at home for Thanksgiving break as they will be hosting the second round contest. Kickoff is set for 12:00 pm.
For up-to-date information on the Patriot football program and the Road to Rome, please visit www.cumberlandspatriots.com.