The University of the Cumberlands (UC) football team squared off in the biggest game in school history Saturday night, the 58th Annual Russell Athletic-NAIA National Championship. The Patriots came into the showdown with the Grand View Vikings trying to add the first National Championship in the history of the school. The #1 ranked, 13-0, and Mid-South Conference East-Division champions Patriots would have their hands full though as they took on a #2 ranked, 13-0, and Mid-States Conference champions Grand View (GV) Vikings football team. Could the Patriots win their National title run in front of over 3,500 rowdy Patriot fans in the last title game in Rome, GA?
In what was the biggest crowd in UC history, senior Albert Huntley (Mableton, GA) showed off his Track & Field National Championship speed as he took the opening kickoff 47 yards to the GV 47, putting the Patriots in excellent field position. The strength of the Vikings this season has been the success of their defense. That was on full display on the first drive as they forced the Patriot offense to a quick three and out. The Vikings wasted no time on their opening drive as they took it 80 yards on 6 plays, to make it 7-0 GV, 3 minutes into the game. The Patriots looked to find their groove on the second drive as they drove it down to the Vikings 11 yard line, but an illegal shift penalty set the Patriots back, and they settled for an Al Merrick (Pineville, KY) 33 yard field goal, making it 7-3 Vikings. Much like their first drive, GV gave the UC defense fits as they found the end zone on a 7 yard touchdown pass to make it 14-3 Vikings with 3 minutes left in the first quarter.
The Patriot offense couldn't find their momentum on the next drive, as the GV defense forced them to a quick three and out. The Vikings got the ball back and looked to continue their string of drives. The GV offense did just that as they capped off a 6 play, 61 yard drive, with a 2 yard touchdown pass. The Vikings took a 21-3 lead early in the 2nd, looking like the makings of a blowout.
Coach Bland and his Patriots had other thoughts as it was a tale of 2 quarters. On UC's first drive in the 2nd quarter, D'Angelo Jordan (Jacksonville, FL) took the ball game into his own hands. D'Angelo capped off an 8 play, 77 yard drive, with a 45 yard touchdown run to make it 21-10 Vikings with 11 minutes left in the half. Michael Collins and his "sharks" defense woke up and swarmed the Vikings offense. The defense forced a quick three and out and gave the Patriot offense another shot to cut into the deficit. The UC offense didn't let them down as Adam Craig (Jackson, TN) scored on a 1 yard QB keeper to make it 21-17 Vikings with the momentum swinging towards the Patriot' sideline.
The Patriot defense looked even better on the next drive as they forced another three and out and gave the ball back to the UC offense. The Vikings defense answered right back as they forced a three and out on their drive. The Vikings offense got the ball back looking to put in one more touchdown before the half. They drove the ball all the way down to the 1 yard line. The UC defense proved their bend-not-break mentality once again as they had a 4 play goal line stand. The Patriots looked to have all the momentum going into the 2nd half where they trailed for the first time since week 7 by a score of 21-17.
UC has been able to take control of the second half all season long. It is where they show their depth and pull ahead. In a heavyweight fight like this game though, halftime adjustments looked to be key in the third quarter. Both defenses were playing at a high level as neither offense could get anything going. This proved true on the Patriots first drive of the 2nd half as they got it all the way to the GV 1 yard line, where the Vikings had an impressive goal line stand of their own. It looked like the Patriots had lost all momentum.
On the next drive though, it was Albert Huntley once again looking to provide a spark for UC. After another hold by the UC defense, GV looked to line up for a punt and pin the Patriots deep in their own territory. Huntley sprinted through the line though and blocked his 4th punt of the season and the Patriots took over at the Vikings 42. The Vikings defense wouldn't let the Patriots offense do anything though as they forced another three and out as they headed to the 4th quarter 21-17.
UC still looked to be in good shape going into the fourth, as the defense was playing better than ever. The Patriots forced another punting opportunity by the Vikings. As Iquan Deed (Montezuma, GA) was set to return the punt, it slipped through his hands and the Vikings recovered, giving them the ball at the UC 27 and all the momentum. Grand View wasted no time taking advantage of their opportunity scoring 3 plays later, and making it 28-17 Vikings with a little less than 13 minutes left in the game. UC wouldn't back down though, as on the next possession they took it 63 yards in 5 minutes, which was capped off with an Adam Craig 1 yard touchdown run. After a failed 2 point conversation attempt that would have made it a field goal game, the Patriots trailed 28-23 with 7 minutes left in the game.
The Vikings looked to match the UC scoring drive, as they did just that as they scored on a 5 play, 56 yard drive to make it 35-23 Vikings with a little less than 5 minutes to play. UC looked to score quickly on a desperation drive, but a fumble by Deed led to a Vikings recovery and their first NAIA National Championship. The UC defense did hold but with a little under a minute left the Patriots were in desperation mode where Craig threw an interception and ended the Patriots magical season with a 35-23 defeat.
The Patriots were plagued by missed opportunities all game long as they had a season high 4 turnovers. Head Coach John Bland was proud of his guys for their effort commenting, "We have had a great run this season and it has been special. These seniors had one goal and that was to win a national title, and we came so close. We just had a couple of mistakes that were costly, but I couldn't be more proud of my team and the University for all the support this season. When asked about next year Bland commented, "I am going to miss coaching all these seniors, but we have a good thing going here and are building something special, and think we can be here again (National Championship game)."
As for the Patriot offense after a slow first quarter, they seemed to settle down and find their form. The Patriot rushing attack was as potent as ever, as they ran for 309 yards on 57 rushing attempts. D'Angelo Jordan carried the load as he ran for 128 yards on 17 carries with 1 touchdown. Adam Craig was just as explosive as he has always been, as he had 94 yards and 2 touchdowns. With the 2 touchdowns, Craig now has 26 rushing touchdowns in a season, tying him with Terrance Cobb (Knoxville, TN) for most rushing touchdowns in a season.
The "sharks" defense much like the Patriots offense, dominated after their first quarter. After the first quarter, the UC defense gave up only 14 points. The sharks were swarming giving the Vikings offense fits getting 3 sacks for negative 31 yards. Weston Hazelhurst (Clinton, TN) continued his impressive playoff run as he led the Patriot defense with 17 tackles. Weston now holds the record for most tackles in a career as a Patriot with 397 tackles. Weston has been a force in these playoffs as through their 4 game playoff run, he has accumulated 58 tackles. Zack Bull (McDonough, GA) also had one of his best games ever for the Patriots, as he had 7 tackles, with a huge 13 yard sack in the third.
For the Patriots their magical season has came to an end with the loss. The UC football team has had a lot of firsts this season. The Patriots are the first team in school history to be ranked number 1 in the nation, have a season high 13 wins, earn their first win past the 2nd round of the NAIA FCS Playoff Series, and be in a National Championship game in any team sport in school history.
Head coach John Bland and his staff must now get to work on next season looking to duplicate the success of this season. Even though they are losing 19 seniors, Bland has set the bar, and a dynasty is being built in Williamsburg, KY.
For more information on the Patriot football program along with other Patriot athletics, please visit www.cumberlandspatriots.com.