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Entering the month of November, Josh Justice was the third string quarterback on the Lenoir-Rhyne depth chart. At that point Justice had only seen action in one game all season as he carried the ball three times for 13 yards in mop up duty during a 41-0 win over Brevard.

But on November 2nd starting quarterback Miles Freeman was lost to a season-ending injury during the Bears* 37-3 win over Carson-Newman. Justice saw an immediate increase in playing time as he became the backup to new starter Teverrius Jones. Depth at quarterback is extremely important for an option-based team and I am sure LRU coach Mike Houston wanted Justice to be ready if needed.

Justice became needed during the Bears* second round playoff game- a rematch with conference rival Carson-Newman. With the Bears facing a 20-13 deficit and Jones fighting an injury, the LRU coaching staff elected to make the change at quarterback and insert Justice into the game late in the third quarter. He responded by leading the Bears on a nine play, 74-yard touchdown drive to tie the game at 20. After the Bears blocked a C-N field goal attempt on the next possession, Justice led LRU to another touchdown, capping a 92-yard drive by throwing a 10-yard touchdown pass to Greyson Wells to give the Bears a 27-20 lead. LRU went on to win the game by that score.

Justice earned the start in the Super Region Two final against North Alabama, rushing for 89 yards and two touchdowns, including the game clincher from 22 yards out with just 2:53 remaining in the game.
And it just kept getting better for Justice. He rushed 26 times for 175 yards and three touchdowns as the Bears blasted West Chester 42-14 in the national semifinals last week. Even more impressive is the fact that he flawlessly ran an LRU offense that had no turnovers in 70 plays-- all of which were runs-- despite the muddy, wet and cold conditions the game was played in.

This week Justice and Lenoir-Rhyne will take on Northwest Missouri State in the national championship game. In less than two months time Justice has gone from an afterthought to LRU*s most important player in the biggest game in school history.

The whole story of what has happened with Josh Justice is an example of what makes sports great. It*s an example of perseverance as Justice is a junior who was behind two other underclassmen on the depth chart. It is also a great example of being ready to perform when given an opportunity.

There is no doubt that Lenoir-Rhyne is a major underdog against Northwest Missouri State this Saturday. But how neat would it be to see Justice standing on the podium hoisting the championship trophy on Saturday? I know it is not the likely outcome, but I bet Josh Justice thinks it is possible.

Observations from the Semifinals

-Northwest Missouri State played an awful first half last Saturday… and they still took a 10-6 lead into the locker room at halftime. This just goes to show how talented this team is, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

-Grand Valley State did a nice job of staying in the game against NWMSU. But the one thing I did not understand about the Laker strategy was this: trailing 7-6 late in the first half, they played it safe and ran the ball on third down and eight deep in Bearcat territory to set up a field goal which was missed. The GVSU coaching staff had to know they needed to take a few more chances against a team as good as the Bearcats.

-As I mentioned earlier, LRU did an incredible job of securing the football considering the field conditions. West Chester did a good job of securing the ball as well, but the Rams passing game was completely grounded by the weather.

Harlon Hill Finalists

West Texas A&M senior quarterback Dustin Vaughan, Henderson State junior quarterback Kevin Rodgers and Bloomsburg senior running back Franklyn Quiteh have been announced as the three top vote-getters among the nine finalists for the Harlon Hill Trophy. All three players will be at the Harlon Hill banquet on Friday night in Florence where the winner will be announced. Key stats for the three players:

Vaughan: 5401 passing yards, 53 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 156 pass efficiency rating
Rodgers: 4449 passing yards, 37 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 178 pass efficiency rating
Quiteh: 2195 rushing yards, 31 touchdowns

I said a couple of weeks ago that I believe Vaughan should win the award based on his gaudy passing statistics in addition to the fact that his team won two road playoff games and played a difficult schedule which included eight teams with winning records.

That said; I expect the vote to be very close between Quiteh and Vaughan. Quiteh was a finalist last year (finishing third) so the fact that he has name recognition with the voters in addition to being in second place on the all-time D2 career rushing list (7523 yards) are two factors that are going to carry some weight.

New Program Coming in Texas

The University of Texas-Permian Basin announced this week that it has gained approval from the UT Board of Regents to start a football program. The program will start play in the 2015 or 2016 seasons and would be a natural fit for the Lone Star Conference. UT-Permian Basin is in Odessa, TX which is one of the hotbeds for high school football in the entire country (think Friday Night Lights). It will be very interesting to see how this program develops in the future.

Connell Maynor Leaving Winston-Salem State

D-I FCS program Hampton named Maynor as its new head coach on Tuesday. He leaves WSSU after four years and an incredible 45-6 record. The Rams reached the national semifinals in 2011 and the national championship game last year.

Maynor made a huge impact not only on the WSSU program, but on the CIAA and the rest of D2 football as well. From day one Maynor stated that the goal of his program was to win national championships and he did the things necessary to reach that goal by recruiting the right types of players and playing a non-conference schedule that was conducive to reaching the postseason. His program at WSSU has raised the bar for the rest of the CIAA and I also believe that WSSU*s recent success played a major role in Tuskegee opting to participate in the playoffs. I think some people have been skeptical over the years about the ability of HBCU schools to be nationally competitive in football and Maynor has been the major factor in changing that perception. Best of luck at Hampton to Coach Maynor- he will definitely be missed in Division II.

National Championship Game

Northwest Missouri State (14-0) vs Lenoir-Rhyne (13-1)
TV: ESPN2 Noon Eastern

This match up reminds me a great deal of the championship game 15 years ago. The Bearcats came into that 1998 game 14-0 as well and were the favorite against Carson-Newman, another SAC team similar to Lenoir-Rhyne in the sense that they ran an option based offense. NWMSU went on to win the game that year, 24-6.

As I mentioned earlier in the column, I think NWMSU is a heavy favorite in this game. My opinion on this is is not meant as any sort of slight towards Lenoir-Rhyne as the Bears have had a great year and have earned their shot at being in this game. It is more about the Bearcats simply being "that good."

I also know that LRU*s option offense is normally very difficult to prepare for. But Northwest has the advantage of having played Harding in last season*s playoffs and Missouri Southern during the regular season this year. Both of those teams run a similar scheme to Lenoir-Rhyne. The Bearcats completely shut down both Harding and MSSU.

I think LRU is going to have to do a couple of things to have a chance in this game. The Bears will have to limit turnovers obviously but they must also move the chains and eat as much clock as possible when they have the football. Anything that shortens the game and limits the number of possessions will be to LRU*s advantage. If LRU has a bunch of three-and-outs or falls behind by a couple of scores early in the game, they are in trouble.
The other thing LRU must do is find a way to force at least three turnovers by the Bearcat offense. I do not think the Bears are talented enough defensively to just line up and stop Northwest all afternoon long. If the Bears can use their quickness on defense to force some timely turnovers, they have a chance to stay in it.

Prediction: I wish I could tell you that I think the last championship game in Florence will be another classic like so many others we have seen over the last 15 years or so. But NWMSU just has a special team with no real weaknesses and it is going to be very difficult for LRU to keep pace in this game. 

Northwest Missouri State 41 Lenoir-Rhyne 17

Mailbag

[Q] Thoughts on the field conditions last week at Lenoir-Rhyne?

Chris

[A] The field was in poor shape, but there is not a lot that can be done when it rains heavily on a grass field during the game. I know the field was not great the previous week either when the Bears hosted North Alabama, but it was definitely playable. When grass goes dormant late in the year and it gets wet and cold it is very difficult to maintain.

Maybe it is time for the D2 Football Committee to institute a policy on grass fields for the semifinals. If one of the two opponents has some sort of artificial turf, then that team should host. If both teams have grass surfaces, then a careful review of the respective field conditions should be done before choosing the host.

[Q] Do you think there will be a trickle down effect on Division II football if the BCS schools break away from the NCAA?

Don

[A] If the BCS schools decide to break away completely from the NCAA, the effect on the rest of the NCAA structure would be incredible. Chaos could ensue with a restructuring among divisions happening from top to bottom. Also, the NCAA*s major revenue stream is the proceeds from the Division I basketball TV deal. Money from the D-I basketball tournament basically trickles down to fund travel in the playoffs for D2 schools. If the major schools were out of the NCAA, the value of any basketball TV deal would decline dramatically. Could you imagine a D2 playoff system where the schools were all required to fund their own travel? Not many schools in this division would be able to afford to send their team on the road three or four straight weeks in the playoffs.

That said; I think the chances that the BCS schools would break away are very, very slim. It is more likely that they will be granted concessions by the rest of the D-I to act more autonomously when it comes to stipends for players and other such things that the major colleges want. If it works out this way, I do not expect there to be much impact at all on the D2 football membership.

Contact Me

Feel free to contact me at with any comments or criticisms or if you have a question you would like answered in the Mailbag.

 

 
         
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