BOWIE – As the Bowie State University football team approached the postseason, its year could not have been going any better.
However, when Carson-Newman made the trip to Bulldogs Stadium to open the playoffs, it was clear that the Eagles had a mission to dethrone one of the most prolific Division II college football programs this season.
Despite racking up 410 yards of total offense, the Bulldogs were held to a season-low nine points as the Eagles unleashed relentless defensive pressure coupled with red zone efficiency to pull away for a comeback away win, 17-9, over Bowie State (BSU) in the opening round of the NCAA Division II playoffs on Nov. 23.
Carson-Newman disrupted the Bulldogs’ passing game by sending well-timed blitzes to Bowie State quarterback Ja’rome Johnson, the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association’s (CIAA) Offensive Player of the Year, who was sacked five times and threw two costly interceptions.
“We knew coming in here that trying to keep up with the quarterback (Johnson) and rushing the football and scrambling with him was going to be a problem,” Head Coach Mike Turner said in the postgame press conference. “He is a great athlete, very effective. We finally found a way to tackle him a few times on defense.”
Both teams swapped three-and-outs to start the game. On Carson-Newman’s second drive, quarterback Tyler Thackerson tossed a 63-yard pass to wide receiver Braxton Westfield to give the Eagles an early 7-0 lead with 10:31 to go in the first.
On the ensuing drive, the Bulldogs struck back. Johnson found wide receiver Darius Bowman for two 11-yard completions and Geordan Clark for 9 yards before connecting with tight end DuShon David for a 33-yard touchdown to tie the score.
Toward the end of the first quarter, Bowie had a chance to tack on another touchdown after Johnson scrambled 29 yards to the Eagles’ 6-yard line. He threw an incomplete pass, rushed 4 more yards and Calil Wilkins rushed a yard to get the Bulldogs to the 1-yard line. But on fourth-and-goal, they fell inches short of scoring after a good defensive read by Carson-Newman that led to a Bulldogs’ turnover-on-downs.
After the ball was snapped to Thackerson behind the end zone, defensive end Jonathan Ross tackled the junior quarterback for a safety, giving Bowie State a 9-2 lead heading into the second.
The Eagles and the Bulldogs continued to trade strong defensive sequences throughout the second quarter as the score remained 9-7 at the half. Also in the period, Johnson threw an interception to Jamarion McDonald and was a little banged up from a pass rush that sidelined him for a few possessions.
About halfway through the quarter, kicker Nate Craft missed a 52-yarder that could have given the Eagles the halftime lead, then BSU kicker Gene Carson misfired on a 33-yard field goal that would have helped the Bulldogs extend their lead.
To open the second half, Carson-Newman’s Troy Dendy made a series of crucial runs that put the Eagles in scoring position. On a fourth-and-long play at the BSU 30-yard line, Craft knocked in a 47-yard field goal to help Carson-Newman regain a one-point lead about midway through the third.
Bowie State had another opportunity to reclaim the lead after working its way to scoring range. Carson’s second field goal attempt from 44 yards was blocked by Damarkus Jones as the Eagles held a narrow lead entering the fourth.
The Eagles took advantage of the superb field position at the top of the fourth quarter. They reached the red zone after running back Antonio Wimbush rushed 9 yards to Bowie’s 13-yard line. Thackerson followed with a 3-yard scramble, then on the next snap, Wimbush zoomed through an open gap for a 10-yard score that gave Carson-Newman a 17-9 lead about two minutes into the quarter.
Wimbush, 5-foot-10 senior, led all rushers with 143 yards for a touchdown to help Carson-Newman improve to 9-2 on the season.
BSU’s offense simply could not find an answer for the Carson-Newman defensive surge. The Bulldogs committed another turnover-on-downs in their first series of the fourth, then Johnson threw a game-clinching interception to Ja’Quan Smithonly six yards away from the goal line with 2:11 left.
Carson-Newman’s defense totaled a whopping 52 yards on tackles for loss, stifling the Bulldogs from capitalizing in crucial moments throughout the contest. Johnson led the way, going 16-of-34 for 263 yards and a touchdown while tallying 98 more yards on 22 carries.
“We lost a tough game against a very good Carson-Newman football team… they’ve been where we’re trying to go so we must continue to work to get back,” Bowie State Head Coach Damon Wilson said.
“I am definitely proud of the guys,” said senior linebacker Tommar Phillips, one of the leaders on BSU’s defense who finished the game with three tackles. “Seeing that (Carson-Newman) was an option team… it made me proud that we could stop the run so many times.”
After hosting the first round of the NCAA Division II playoffs for three consecutive seasons and capturing the CIAA crown for the second year in a row, the Bulldogs’ 2019 season concludes at 11-1.
“One thing that I think gets lost sometimes after a loss – you gotta enjoy the process, you gotta enjoy the things that you have accomplished,” Wilson said. “We’re going to enjoy this moment, and we’ll be back.”